<< Back

A Fresh Start in 2021: Is a Plant-Based Diet the Right Choice for Cancer Survivors?

January 04, 2021

By Diane Avino
Dietician, Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute

What does a plant-based diet mean? And is it the right choice for a cancer survivor?

Put simply, plant-based means food that contains ingredients derived from plants. This could apply to a particular food product or to your diet.

So what is the difference between a plant-based diet, a vegetarian diet and a vegan diet?

  • A plant-based diet features foods mostly of plant origin. It does not exclude meat or dairy foods.
  • A vegetarian diet refers to a meal plan that does not include meat, fish, dairy or eggs. If you consider yourself a vegetarian, you might avoid meat and fish but regularly consume dairy and eggs.
  • A vegan diet often describes not only an eating pattern but also a way of life. A vegan diet, exclusively foods from plants, avoids all foods of animal origin. It may also refer to the way you live your life and the commitment you have made.

For a cancer survivor, good nutrition is crucial. Contemplating the benefits of a plant-based diet does not mean you’re giving up animal foods forever. Adding one or two plant-based meals a week is a healthy way to incorporate new foods into your diet. This provides a more balanced intake of macronutrients, micronutrients and phytochemicals — all of these little compounds help our bodies to be at their best. Consuming vitamins in their natural state may be better than vitamin supplements, too.

But why? Decades of research support the health benefits of eating more foods from plants. For a cancer survivor, there is also increased cancer prevention and recurrence. A plant-based diet has been shown to provide greater support for the immune system, reduce inflammation in the body, promote maintenance of a healthy body weight, increases fiber intake and provide an overall reduction of cancer risk as well as other diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

If you want to start incorporating more plant-based meals into your routine, then you need to do a little planning.  It is important to be sure you continue to consume adequate protein sources.

Examples of plant foods that are good protein sources:

  • Legumes (lentils, beans, peas).
  • Soy-foods (soy milk, tofu, tempeh, edamame).
  • Seitan (made from cooked wheat gluten).
  • Meat alternatives (veggie burgers, plant-based crumbles).
  • Nuts.
  • Seeds.
  • Grains (farro, millet, quinoa).

When you feel ready to get started, plan a meal around whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits. This gives your body a balanced meal high in protein, fiber and phytochemicals. You can plan your meal around soy-based foods like tofu and tempeh.

Start by trying one plant-based meal a week. You may find an abundance of plant foods that inspire you to try new things and experiment in the kitchen. Any associated reduction in carbohydrates and saturated fat intake may also help lower your risk profile.

Trying one plant-based meal doesn’t mean you’re giving up animal foods. Rather, you’re adding different nutrients to your already healthy eating plan. It’s another way to keep a cancer survivor healthy.

Please also consider exercising for a minimum of 150 minutes per week, with exercise a minimum of five days per week. This will also help lower your risk profile and keep you healthier!  Please feel free to reach out to your cancer center dietician for advice and support.

Diane Avino is a Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute dietician.