The Power of Food: Taking Control of Your Health Through Nutrition

Livestrong Solution Grant Partner Highlight: Plant Powered Metro

Food can be a powerful tool to improve health for those with a history of any chronic condition, including cancer. It is projected that more than 22.1 million Americans will be living with a history of cancer by 2030 [1]. Furthermore, up to 70% of individuals with a history of cancer report experiencing fear of cancer recurrence [2].

Currently, there are many approaches that aim to reduce the risk and fear of recurrence among cancer survivors. One such approach is being implemented by Livestrong’s 2021 Solution Grant Partner: Plant Powered Metro New York (PPMNY). Through nutritional education and peer mentorship, PPMNY aims to lay the foundation for healthier, dignified aging amongst elderly cancer survivors of color in New York City. Their approach involves teaching survivors about whole-food, plant-based nutrition, emphasizing plant-based foods, and minimizing processed foods as well as animal products. To understand PPMNY’s approach and the challenges they work to overcome, we sat down with Lianna Levine Reisner, the Network Director of PPMNY, and Holly Hatfield-Patel, the Network Communications Manager of PPMNY.

LS: Why might cancer survivors consider adopting a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle?

PPMNY: Cancer diagnosis and treatments can change survivors’ relationship with food. As treatments aim to kill cancer cells, they can also damage people’s healthy cells, leading to nutritional deficiencies [3]. Although still being studied, lifestyle changes including whole-food, plant-based nutrition have been shown to reduce the risk of recurrence for certain types of breast cancers and prostate cancers [4][5]. Adopting whole-food, plant-based lifestyle practices can also help cancer survivors feel in control of their health and overcome their fear of recurrence. Making nutritional changes gives survivors agency and helps them to get back to normal after cancer treatment.

Whole-food, plant-based nutrition can be of particular benefit to elderly cancer survivors. Aside from a potential reduced risk of cancer recurrence, survivors who adopt nutritional changes may benefit from reduced risk of other chronic diseases, including cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s [6]. Survivors who choose to incorporate more plant-based foods and reduce processed foods in their lifestyle can gain a sense of autonomy allowing them to take charge of their health throughout the entire duration of the aging process. Reaching that level of independence is not always easy, though, and often relies on support from the loved ones of survivors.

LS: What tools are available to help survivors overcome the challenges of nutritional changes?

PPMNY: Nutritional changes are typically not incorporated as part of cancer treatment plans, leaving survivors unaware of the role that nutrition plays in cancer recurrence. In fact, less than 60% of malnourished cancer patients receive nutritional interventions of any type [7]. That number drops to less than 40% of all cancer patients [7]. Furthermore, medical education places little emphasis on teaching healthcare providers how to counsel patients about nutritional changes. Survivors are not getting the information they need to manage their diet, presenting difficulties to adopting new regimens. Seeking out educational resources, such as those offered by Plant Powered Metro New York (https://www.plantpoweredmetrony.org/what-is-wfpb.html), can help survivors begin the journey to nutrition that best serves their health.

Survivors also face practical challenges to accommodating whole-food, plant-based nutrition in their day-to-day lives. People tend to make nutritional decisions based on the food that surrounds them in grocery stores or what foods they were raised eating. According to Reisner, the art of adopting whole-food, plant-based nutrition involves learning how to find the right foods and how to prepare meals that work for a survivor’s life. With the support of those around them, survivors can develop nutritional habits that are well-suited for their lifestyle. Reisner goes on to elaborate that proper support creates humanity and builds community that helps cancer survivors see that plant-based foods offer an abundance of choices rather than scarcity. Mentorship serves as a powerful tool to help survivors overcome the educational barrier to adopting whole-food, plant-based nutrition, and empowers survivors with the practical skills necessary to incorporate lifestyle changes.

LS: How can survivors of color continue to engage in their cultural traditions while working to adopt whole-food, plant-based nutrition?

PPMNY: Once a patient reaches survivorship, they may desire to reestablish some of their pre-treatment traditions. In some cases, survivors of color who work to reclaim their cultural culinary traditions may recognize that part of their heritage might not serve their health. Some foods that are rooted in cultural traditions may need to be adapted to fit a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle. Some survivors may also feel guilt when straying from traditions to incorporate whole-food, plant-based nutrition. They may even be challenged by friends and family who question their new lifestyle practices. That doesn’t mean they can’t eat the things they love. It is important to teach those affected by cancer that they can find ways to balance their commitment to cultural traditions with responsibilities to their health. Mentorship can serve as a tool to assist cancer survivors of color in finding this balance. With the support of those with shared experiences, survivors of color can overcome guilt and maintain their cultural connections in ways that best serve their overall health.

LS: How does Plant Powered Metro New York help survivors adopt whole-food, plant-based lifestyles?

PPMNY: Plant Powered Metro New York provides mentorship and support to elderly cancer survivors of color in New York to help them adopt lifestyle changes. By building a community around whole-food, plant-based nutrition, PPMNY wants to provide hope for those they serve. Through expert-designed courses on the value of food for cancer prevention, healthy aging coupled with support groups, and regular community events, cancer survivors served by PPMNY can work towards adopting beneficial lifestyle changes. As Livestrong’s Solution Grant Partner, PPMNY works to advance person-centered care in survivorship by addressing the needs of the whole person, whether those be practical nutritional needs or emotional support to embrace change. Survivors in the New York metropolitan area can get involved with PPMNY’s programs for nutritional change at https://www.plantpoweredmetrony.org. Survivors outside of New York can take advantage of PPMNY’s social media groups, online educational resources, and virtual events at https://www.plantpoweredmetrony.org/events.html.

LS: How can I get started with making nutritional changes?

PPMNY: Nutrition is key to cancer survivorship, from reducing the risk and fear of cancer recurrence to promoting dignified aging for survivors. Survivorship is an ongoing process and working towards healthier nutrition can start with small changes. Survivors can build community around lifestyle changes and work to adopt healthier nutritional practices over time. Throughout the process, survivors can take control of their health and remind themselves that survivorship does not need to be a passive experience.

If you don’t know where to start with nutritional changes for survivorship, check out:

References

  1. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/caac.21565
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fear-of-cancer-recurrence-mind-body-tools-offer-hope-2019030716152
  3. https://dellmed.utexas.edu/blog/nutrition-cancer-care
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5981678/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16094059/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32643581/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24748626/

Written By: Rohit Prasad, Livestrong Intern

Rohit Prasad was a Summer 2021 Mission Intern at Livestrong. He will graduate from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2022 with a degree in Computational Biology and a certificate in Ethics and Leadership in Health Care. After graduation, he will be attending medical school to pursue a career as a physician.

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