What to eat? What not to eat? Dilemmas of a health conscious foodie

Updated: Feb 12

Growing up in Poland, there was little to no talk of diets, nutritional fads, or fasting methods. We ate what was there to eat, usually only seasonal stuff: fresh veggies and herbs during summer months, root vegetables, tubers and dried legumes in the winter. There was even a tradition to pull one’s ear the first time a new spring veggie or fruit would be eaten, first strawberry, first tomato, etc., for good luck and abundance during the summer. There was a lot of canning, since over winter there really wasn’t much access to fruit or vegetable. It was unheard of to be eating anything from another part of the world. Communist Poland was rarely importing any foods and even if it did, it was only from other communist countries, like occasional oranges or bananas from Cuba.

We ate animal products when they were available. During the worst eeconomic crisis of the 1980s, meat was rationed and even then rarely avalaible. If you were lucky, had a large enough freezer, and knew a farmer who was raising livestock, you could buy a whole pig and have it made into sausages, ham, and meat portions to last you for a year. My parents did it once during the Martial Law in the dog days of the communist rule. My dad was transporting the goods in his little Polish Fiat, filled to the brim with the aromatic smoked meat and sausages. When he got stopped by the police, they sniffed it out right away and he had to bribe them with some ham and vodka to be let go. In any case, meat in those days was hard to get, but when we got it, it was fresh, made from animals that were pasture-raised and have known no anti-biotics or genetic modification.

So we ate staples: bread, meat, dairy, potatoes, and veggies and fruit when available or canned. Maybe not the healthiest diet out there, but definitely local and seasonal, and not at all or only minimally processed. That’s what I grew up on, heritage foods. I guess this is why to this day I am very wary of processed, packaged foods, or “Frankenfoods.” In a supermarket, I generally omit all the aisles and roam only the perimeters where vegetables and fruits, fresh meat and dairy, and other healthier options are located.

Today I am fortunate to live in the state that is probably the most abundant in natural, locally grown and raised food: California. There is a farmers’ market somewhere around almost every day of the week where I can buy fresh veggies and fruit, farm-raised eggs, olive oil, honey and other staples. I also started a small urban garden last year, which has been a moderate success, but I’m hoping for even better yields in the years to come. We have been harvesting lots of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, not that many eggplants or squashes (Japanese Beetle grubs ate them from the roots up), and a true abundance of lettuces and fresh herbs.

It’s only this past year that I managed to relax a bit about what I should and should not eat in order to ward off any cancer reoccurrence and to keep myself and my family healthy and well nourished. Especially in regard to nutrition and cancer (read about my 5 year-long journey here), there is so much information out there, most of it conflicting or cancelling each other out. One day eggs are great, another day they are the spawn of the devil. One week, coffee is the highly prized superfood we’ve been all waiting for, another week it is a total no-no. One month it’s all about plant-based, preferably vegan diet; another month it is keto or bust.

So what to eat, what not to eat?

The regular doctors I was dealing with were not much help in regard to nutrition, even though this is such an important way to prevent cancer in the first place and to improve outcomes once someone has cancer already. Apparently, their medical training included only a few hours of study of this topic, and it seems that nutrition is on the back burner when it comes to continuing education of medical professionals. The oncology department where I was seeing my doctors and receiving treatments would proudly display a bowl of sweets right at the entrance. I understand the idea of trying to emotionally nurture the patients but c’mon, sugar and cancer really don’t mix together. It should be pretty obvious to everyone.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. –Hippocrates

Why is there so little definite information about dietary guidelines for optimal health? A recent op-ed from New York Times by Dr. Ludwig and Dr. Heymsfield suggest that it is because there is not enough clinical trials about food, due to lack of funds. Food sources, at least not the natural, real food, cannot be patented and branded and hence made into profits. It is easier to source funding for marketable new medicines because someone will be able to monetize on the results of the trial if it proves successful.

Therefore, a lot of information that can be found online about what to eat for optimal health and wellness is mostly opinion or based on anecdotal evidence.

What most people don’t realize is that food is not just calories; it’s information. It actually contains messages that connect to every cell in the body. – Dr. Mark Hyman

I tried many approaches before finding the sweet spot of natural, sensible, sustainable, real food that I find to be serving me and my family best. Here are some of the diet/nutrition books I bought. That is in addition to hundreds of recipes I searched online.

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A health-consious foodie on a mission

  • For over two years before being diagnosed with cancer I was strictly vegan. I made my own nut milks, my own vegan cheeses, I liked it, my family not so much.

  • Immediately after the diagnosis, I threw myself into researching dietary guidelines and from the thicket of suggestions in books and online I chose as the most sensible one a mix between the Gerson juicing diet and the Budwig protocol. We bought a cold press juicer, I ate and drank the recommended foods and drinks. I was determined to stay on it, but when I lost almost half of my weight and was deemed malnourished by my doctors, I was literally ordered to eat something more substantial to keep up my strength for the upcoming treatments.

  • At this point, I sought help of a naturopath who put me immediately on a paleo/keto diet: high fat, quality meat and dairy, full fats, zero carbs, very little fruit and only selected vegetables (nothing starchy). It worked ok, until my surgery which left me without part of the colon and totally changed bathroom habits. The keto approach lacked fiber and was too high in fat for my compromised gut to handle. The diet was not sustainable, I had to change it up.

  • For a while I followed my surgeon’s advice which was to basically eat what I felt like and what my intestines would tolerate. It turns out it was mostly white carbs like white rice, bagels, bananas. I felt so conflicted eating this stuff which was tolerated by my gut, but which ‘my gut' was telling me was not good for keeping the cancer from returning. All that carbohydrate content turning into sugar, rising my insulin levels, “feeding the cancer” as one can read a lot (but which is not so simple, here is a link to an interesting read about sugar by Dr. Li.

  • Once I finished my treatments, my naturopath advised another change, one that I felt I would stick to and I did: a common-sense, Mediterranean style diet. It is a plan that is mainly plant-based, but allowing consumption of wild-caught fish (salmon, sardines, cod are my favorite) and occasional organic, grass-fed meat; it allows occasional eggs; it encourages consumption of healthy fats, especially olive oil; it calls for eating whole or wild grains like brown or wild rice, quinoa, barley, or wheat berry; and allows for eating sourdough bread (which I make myself). Most importantly, at the diet’s center is the abundance of fruit and all the veggies I can find here in California.

This Mediterranean eating plan appeals to my taste and that of my family. What’s more, it’s not only backed by studies of its effects on longevity and health (some of the peoples on such diet live in the so-called Blue Zones), it just seems the most sensible approach to healthy eating. Basically I see it as the plan to EAT REAL FOOD. Also, it allows moderate consumption of red wine which I adore on occasion! And, it calls for mindful eating, spending time with family and friends over food preparation and consumption, and celebrating the rituals around food.

Here are some general tips, adapted from the Mayo Clinic website:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least 7 servings a day of fruit and vegetables.

  • Opt for whole grains. Switch to whole-grain bread, cereal and pasta. Try new grains like kamut or farro.

  • Use healthy fats. Try olive oil as a replacement for butter when cooking. Instead of putting butter or margarine on bread, try dipping it in olive oil.

  • Eat more seafood. Eat fish twice a week but avoid deep-fried fish.

  • Reduce meat consuption, especially red meat. Substitute fish, poultry or beans for meat. If you eat meat, make sure it's lean, antibiotic-free and keep portions small.

  • Enjoy limited amounts dairy. Eat low-fat Greek or plain yogurt and small amounts of a variety of cheeses. No sweet yogurt (those are sugar bombs); it’s better to get plain yogurt and sweeten it with honey or maple syrup or stevia.

  • Spice it up. Herbs and spices boost flavors.

For example of a blanced Mediterrean diet dinner: See my simple weeknight salmon dinner here.

Wealth of Information on how to heal yourself and prevent disease

Probably the soundest advice I found in books so far has been in Dr. William Li's "Eat to Beat Disease." Unlike a typical cook book writer, Dr. Li explains the science of healing and prevention of disease by utilizing food to actively boost health. He specifically discusses foods that help with regulating processes in our bodies that help to prevent disease: Angiogenesis, Regeneration, Microbiome, DNA Protection, and Immunity. It's a great read for anyone trying to get healthy and to ward of disease.

How are you finding the balance between healthy and palatable? How do you decide on what to eat and what not to eat? I'd love to hear from you. Drop me a note.

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