When it comes to healthy eating, many of us strive for some sort of balance. From a cancer prevention point of view, eating an array of foods that contribute to overall health can be very beneficial, but sometimes it can be difficult to know when we’ve had enough fruit and vegetables for the day and when it’s okay to enjoy a treat that may be less nutritious.
Canada’s Food Guide
In January of this year, Health Canada released an updated version of Canada’s Food Guide, a national document designed to inform Canadians’ eating habits. Gone is the familiar rainbow graphic, labeled with individual food categories and recommended serving sizes of each. The key message is that creating a healthy meal is easy when you use the Eat Well plate — a photo of a plate half filled with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with whole-grains and the final quarter with a mix of animal and plant-based proteins.
The idea is that rather than counting servings throughout the day, all of us can eyeball our plates and assess how well the proportions mimic the graphic in the guide. Lindsay Lee, a dietitian at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, says she likes the effectiveness of the visual aid as well as the recommendation that we can all benefit from choosing “protein foods that come from plants more often.” The guide doesn’t just prescribe what we should eat, but also asks Canadians to be more mindful about their habits.
“It’s not only looking at the types of foods, but also trying to increase awareness of how we’re eating,” Lee says. “It’s asking people to think about cooking more often at home, eating along with others, being mindful about our eating and being aware of things like food marketing that might influence our choices.”
Taking a Holistic View of Healthy Eating
While Canada’s Food Guide also cautions Canadians about what foods and drinks to limit (namely, to stay away from sugary drinks and highly processed foods that add excess salt, sugar or saturated fat), eating can nevertheless be a great pleasure. We don’t need to always deny ourselves the joy that comes with beloved and culturally meaningful foods — even if they don’t fit into our typical eating plans. Many health-conscious eaters often view eating the occasional chocolate bar or hot dog as failure, or at the very least, a “cheat,” which is a mindset that isn’t always a healthy approach.
Vincci Tsui, a private registered dietitian in Calgary, says that whether someone is recovering from cancer or just trying to maintain a healthy diet, there’s no reason to feel guilty after savouring the occasional treat. While Tsui isn’t suggesting that people gorge themselves on processed foods or sweets, she does advocate “intuitive” eating, which involves following one’s body’s cues and looking at wellness from a holistic point of view. She advises that people consider the social and emotional benefits that come from celebrating with a piece of birthday cake or going out for dinner with friends, which can outweigh the effects of the extra sugar or calories.
“People can lose sight of the fact that nutrition is really just a part of what makes up a person’s health,” Tsui says. “People can become very obsessive about restricting their eating and food choices. But that can end up damaging your mental health, as well as your social health and well-being.”
Increasingly, people are turning to unconventional methods to balance out days when they may consume more calories than they’d like to. “Intermittent fasting,” as this is often called, involves limiting eating to a small daily window or going without food on alternate days throughout the week. It has become very trendy, primarily as a weight loss method.
Lee says that while fasting can lead to immediate weight loss, like many other short-term weight loss approaches, it may not be sustainable. Fasting for religious reasons or prior to a medical treatment as per a doctor’s orders are appropriate. However, as a dietitian, Lee advises there isn’t research to support that fasting leads to better outcomes for weight management.
There is also a trend toward fasting during cancer treatment — patients sometimes will ask about fasting in order to reduce the toxicities that come with chemotherapy and may contribute to some of treatment’s more uncomfortable side-effects.
“There just isn’t enough evidence for us to recommend fasting during cancer treatment,” Lee says. “There is interesting research going on right now, but until there’s a greater body of evidence, we can’t really recommend it for any of our patients.”
Both Lee and Tsui want people to use common sense and weigh their bodies’ needs when making food choices. Balance looks different for everyone — maintaining health and happiness is about giving your body (and occasionally your mind) what it needs to stay strong and well-fuelled.
Curried Quinoa and Lentil Salad
One of the key recommendations in the new Canada’s Food Guide is to regularly choose plant-based proteins over animal proteins. This salad from ATCO’s Blue Flame Kitchen is packed with quinoa, a terrific plant-based source of protein.
3 1/4 cup water
2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp salt 1 cup quinoa, thoroughly rinsed and drained
1/2 cup dried red lentils, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp water
2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp oil
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
4 cups torn young Swiss chard leaves or baby spinach
Combine water, curry powder and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir in quinoa and lentils; return to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 15 minutes. Transfer quinoa mixture to a bowl and fluff with a fork. Cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, to prepare dressing, whisk together next six ingredients (vinegar through cayenne pepper) until combined. Gradually whisk in oil until blended. Stir in green onion. Add dressing and Swiss chard to quinoa mixture and toss to combine. Serve immediately. Serves 6.