Intuitive & Mindful Eating During Cancer Treatment & Recovery

By: Julie Walton

What is Mindful Eating? We hear a lot these days about mindfulness and “being mindful’. This is all for good reason. But, how does this apply to eating, nutrition and science? And, what does it mean to eat intuitively or mindfully after you’ve been diagnosed with cancer?

Let’s break this down…

Mindfulness is defined as “The basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 

This may not seem applicable to Nutrition Science. However, it has everything to do with science. 

Let's explore the relationship between the two and how we can do it when we’re already overwhelmed by dealing with a cancer diagnosis or treatment. 

Being mindful is the act of being present to what is happening, what you are doing, and the space you are moving through in any given moment. When you take a pause before you eat to relax your mind and body, give thanks and take a few deep breaths this will help to transition the autonomic nervous system from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). 

The SNS’s main job is to stimulate the body’s fight or flight response, which is not helpful for digesting your food. Whereas, the PNS stimulates the body’s ability to relax and digest, so your body’s efficiency at breaking down food and taking in nutrients is favored when you are in more of this mindful and relaxed state. 

This means, being mindful around mealtimes is even more important than we may think because it supports the digestion of your food and the absorption of nutrients from your meals. 

But, let’s be honest! How many of us have sat down at our computer and devoured an entire meal before we even had time to enjoy it. Or, we scarf down a meal in the car when we are short for time. Yes, we live in a busy world and many of us have so much on the go. 

However, what regularly happens is our mind takes off on little adventures into the past or future and we forget about the food we are eating, and this can bring on symptoms of anxiousness and unease in the body. This unease does not set up the body for digestion. 

We can then override our body’s innate inner wisdom to educate us on “what our body needs to nourish itself in any given moment”, so in a way we can lose touch with our body. This can lead to over-eating, under-eating or simply not thinking about what we may need from our food at any given time. When we’re facing intense treatments for a cancer diagnosis, tuning into what our body is telling us is really important! The messages may be subtle but we’ve got to learn to listen so we can give our bodies what they need and want to aid in recovery. 

 I believe that taking a few extra minutes to nourish our body in a day is worth it, especially if your body is already on overdrive from trying to process treatments and heal. Stepping away from the computer at work, taking time away from the responsibilities in our life to nourish ourselves, or turning off the TV to have a family meal can be all it takes to set the tone for mindful eating. This can help create a new habit in the way we eat as a society. You are worth it! 

 When we take the busy lifestyle factor and add the never-ending misinformation and overwhelming amount of information ‘out there ‘ or online, to the equation, this can make mealtime or meal prep feel impossible for some. Or, it can turn eating into a meaningless task. Mealtime in many cultures is a time to celebrate, give thanks and enjoy good conversation and laughter. 

 I think we need to bring meaningful meal times back because it doesn’t have to be this way. What about you? Let’s make mealtime and food in general - nourishing, realistic, simple and beautiful again!

 When you have a craving, get curious about where this is coming from.

When going through cancer treatment, you may not ‘crave food’ at some points. Therefore, you may want to rely on a food schedule at first. Create meals with foods that are highly nutrient dense and pair them with your taste and texture preferences at that time. This may be a good place to start. 

 When the cravings do come, listen to them. Your body has innate wisdom. Yes – sometimes it is craving for things like sugar (which may not last long and you may just wait that out. Or, you be searching for an energy boost). So, think about where you can get that. Reach for a fruit with some nuts to balance your blood sugars, a baking item that used honey and had a few eggs in it to provide you with some protein or yam fries for some slow releasing energy paired with a delicious cashew dip and a homemade veggie lentil or turkey burger.

 Other times it may be for a hotdog and chips that suits your fancy. Sit with this and see where this craving is coming from? Ask yourself do I need protein? Can I get it from a farm fresh sausage and make homemade sweet potato fries? 

 This will still allow you to obtain the comfort from the food that may remind you of baseball games with your kiddos or with your own parents, but allow for a nourishing meal for your mind, body and soul all at the same time. See where you can swap one item out for a nourishing alternative. 

 Taste your food like it’s the first time you have had it in years. Observe the texture and really take it in. This can slow down your eating and ensure you chew your food well. This can optimize your digestion and help you feel more satisfied after a meal. It will allow you to tune into what feeling actual hunger and fullness feels like again.

 Be bold in saying, “no thanks I am full” or “I need to sit down and have a snack before we leave to nourish my body – then I am good to go!”

 Enjoy a meal with family or friends. Laugh, enjoy and connect over a simple and beautiful meal.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be a nourishing soup. But food enjoyed with friends and family can be healing. 

 Ask yourself each day, how can I nourish my body today. Then match that with your choices, your tastes and your available time and energy to make your meals.

 Be kind to yourself in the process. Have a treat when you really want a treat. 

 Here are a few simple tips!

Take the time to find recipes you enjoy!

Take five deep breaths before you eat.

 Give thanks for what you are about to eat (out load with others or in your 

head when alone).

Find meals that nourish your body and fulfill your nutritional needs that also fuel your soul (aka make them taste good!!).

Keep food simple, as this is one of the things that deter people from “eating well”. Time is a major barrier. Chose simple recipes with nourishing and tasty ingredients. 

If you have sweet craving, make oatmeal cookies with rolled oats (whole grains) and nut butters, seeds (healthy fats and protein) that are sweetened simply with the bananas or a little maple syrup. 

The fat, fiber and protein combination will help with snack satisfaction (satiety) and the body’s mechanisms to help you “feel full‘ for a longer period of time, while balancing blood sugars to help with a mid-day crash in energy. 

Try crisping brown rice or whole grain tortillas quickly in the oven and pair with guacamole (healthy fat) and salsa for that salty crunch along with onions and garlic and herbs for their cancer supportive qualities. 

"Your happiness is also important for your health, so let your nourishing food choices reflect what you enjoy in the process."


Photo credit to Julie Walton Health