If you want to make a change in your diet but don’t know how, this advice from one of our health educators might help.
“Start slow,” says Andrea Murray, health education specialist in MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center.
Murray spends every day talking to people who want to shift toward healthier foods, so she knows what a struggle it can be.
“We want to help you reduce your risk for cancer in as many ways as possible,” Murray says. “But we want you to make changes that are realistic for you.”
Eating a healthy diet is one of the nine proven ways to reduce your risk for cancer. For Murray, the first step is to think about what’s possible for her patients.
How to switch to a healthy diet
So, what is a healthy diet? MD Anderson recommends you eat a plant-based diet. That means filling at least two-thirds of your plate with whole grains, vegetables, fruits and other plant foods like beans, nuts and seeds.
The remaining one third can be lean protein like chicken, fish or plant protein like tofu. Here are some tips you can try to make the switch easier:
Start with one small change. It’s hard to change everything at once so try adding just one extra plant food a day.
“Choose one or two things that you love,” says Murray. “Maybe you like apples. Add an extra apple a day. Maybe you like asparagus. Add that in a couple of extra times a week.”
Once you have hit that goal, you can move on to another one.
Cut back on one target item. “For some people, the challenge is cutting something out,” Murray says. “I had someone who wanted to start by cutting down soda from four drinks a week to two. That’s a great start.”
The key to sustainable change is making small changes over time. Most people who make dramatic lifestyle switches find it hard to maintain. “We all need to feel confident in what we do. If not, we can feel like we have failed and simply go back to old habits,” says Murray.
Get inspired by a new recipe. Some people have learned to enjoy plant foods by trying a new dish while out at a restaurant. Or try a new home-cooked recipe with plant foods. Once you’ve tried one you like, it may encourage you to try more.
Use plant foods for snacks. Consider extra servings of plant foods throughout the day as snacks. You could keep a handful of nuts, hummus, a piece of whole fruit or sliced veggies with you to nibble on during the day.
“I encourage people to eat these foods first when they are having sweet cravings or cravings for unhealthy foods between meals,” says Murray.
Branch out from fruit and vegetables. These are not the only plant foods available to you. It might seem less intimidating to start by adding more whole grains, nuts and seeds to your meals. Once you get going with these, you may be more inclined to eat a larger variety of plant foods including more fruits and vegetables.
Add more veggies to a sauce. Many people say they don’t like vegetables because of the texture. Don’t forget you can choose one or two vegetables to add to spaghetti sauce, salsas, salads or soups and it will boost the amount of plant foods you are eating. Finely chop vegetables and sneak them in where you might not notice them as much.
“I did this when I wanted to expand my taste for plant foods,” says Murray. “For example, I did not like the texture of mushrooms, but that changed once I started chopping them and adding to almost everything I ate.”
Remember that behavior change is hard. If you are used to very sweet or salty foods like sodas and chips, it will take time for your taste buds to adjust to healthier foods. Get support from family, friends or even a professional dietitian.
Diet change takes time and discipline so don’t give up if you have a slip. Get going again as soon as you can.
What to expect if you switch to a healthy diet
This diet will also help you maintain a healthy weight and, of course, lower your cancer risk.
You may also experience some changes in digestion. Some people find that an increase in certain plant foods causes gas or bloating. Others experience diarrhea or constipation. This is because your body may need some time to adjust to the extra fiber in your diet.
“Pay attention to your body and talk with your doctor if you have any problems,” says Murray. “Most issues can be solved with simple changes.”
Make sure you are drinking enough water and make note of any specific foods that seem to cause the issue.
“Solving the problem can be as easy as eating cooked vegetables instead of raw or introducing leafy green vegetables more slowly,” says Murray.
The most important thing is to keep making small changes to get you closer to the ideal plant-based diet.
“There is so much in plants that we can’t get from other sources. Your body benefits so much from including vegetables, fruits and whole grains in our meals,” says Murray.