When breast cancer survivor and actor-producer Chhavi Mittal shared her recovery journey with the world, she stood out by documenting her pains and scars along with practical suggestions that worked for her in her fight to get back to where she was, her life at the studio, her gym and at home for her kids. And now that she is cancer-free, she hopes to keep it that way with her diet, something that completely changes for a survivor and is crucial to his/her well-being.
“I now try to stay away from non-vegetarian food, have more vegetables, keep off acidic foods, eat fresh, do not eat out and pace my meals. I have given up processed food and sugar for good. I also practise some sort of intermittent fasting, that some research has shown works for breast cancer survivors. But let me tell you that each survivor will have different ways of coping with their condition and need a diet plan customized to their requirements in consultation with their oncologist and clinical dietitian. And a balanced diet programme isn’t about denial of indulgence. In fact, with a little thought, these can all be flavourful and refreshing,” she tells us.
The diet during chemotherapy
Getting the proper nutrients is vital during chemotherapy. “Your food acts as medicine during this period, healing you from the side effects of the procedure and also building your strength to fight off any unwanted infection, which could complicate matters. During this phase, I was advised to have healthy fats, protein-rich and high fibre foods in my diet. Definitely stay away from raw foods and salads that could contain microbes and cause an infection in your immunity-compromised system,” says Mittal. She doesn’t eat raw even now and lightly sautes her greens, vegetables and fruits. Other than that, she is particular about fulfilling her sugar requirements from natural sources (her lightly sautéed banana toast, the fruit sliced, stir-fried and placed on pan-fried bread, makes for a great snack). And she has learnt to cook as much as she can finish in a single sitting, storing food at the right temperature.
“Sometimes you get nausea, vomitting and a sore mouth during the chemo cycles. I had and still have a lot of kokum because it is non-acidic. I take a lot of nuts, dates, flaxseeds, sesame seeds and hemp seeds, the last usually roasted, ground and mixed in water,” says Mittal. She also recommends that protein be taken from natural sources. “My go to protein-rich foods are Greek yogurt, nuts and seeds, hard-boiled eggs, fish, chicken, paneer, broccoli, which help maintain my strength and energy. I have sattu (roasted gram flour) pancakes, which are very rich in protein. In fact, stir some sattu in water and it makes for a great protein shake,” adds Mittal. Eating small portions slowly and every few hours seems to work best on the day of the therapy.
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The diet after chemotherapy
These days Mittal is busy finding quick fixes, relying on legumes, wholegrains, white and black chana. “Just boil, steam or sprout them and you can give a great start to your body without much of an effort. These foods help you up your immunity,” she says. There are other mindful practices she follows, like eating out at a hygienic restaurant, avoiding street food altogether, carrying home food and boiled water instead of buying filtered water and most importantly choosing dishes without raw lettuce or greens. “I never have a burger for this reason. The lettuce may be cut in the morning and the bacteria multiply there throughout the day. But I may very rarely have a thin-crust whole wheat pizza knowing that it comes fresh off the oven.” She uses a lot of vegan proteins, adding them to her post-workout smoothies.
But the biggest change has been in her consumption of sugar and limiting her dairy intake, particularly milk. “Sugar is best avoided after fighting off cancer. I do have khand and jaggery as also complex carbohydrates that take longer to be broken down and, therefore, lend satiety. I avoid animal milk because the cows are given hormone injections to lactate and these are transferred to the milk, making it carcinogenic. Besides, it takes eight hours to digest a glass of milk. And we eat so much food with it that we do not realise that we have overloaded the digestive system,” says Mittal.
Why she has adapted intermittent fasting to her regimen
Mittal has modified an intermittent fasting model to her requirement after medical consultation. Indeed, there are studies suggesting that a specific type of intermittent fasting is safe and possible for people diagnosed with cancer and may boost the effectiveness of certain cancer treatments. In a study, which was published online on November 17, 2021, by the journal “Cancer Discovery”, the researchers looked at an intermittent fasting schedule called a fasting-mimicking diet. The diet involved five days of eating very few calories, followed by about three weeks of regular eating. The researchers also analysed how the diet affected certain blood markers.
Researchers at several universities in San Diego suggest that fasting for 13 hours a day may reduce the chances of breast cancer recurrence and death. Scientists at two other California universities concluded separately that calorie reduction and fasting may help reduce cancer risk and improve the effectiveness of the treatment in attacking cancer cells. A 2016 University of Southern California study suggests fasting may make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy, protect normal cells and promote stem cell production. Another study theorised that fasting may help the immune system regenerate. The researchers also suggested that a two-day fast combined with chemotherapy was better at slowing cancer progression than chemotherapy alone.
“The logic is fairly simple. Fasting may reduce glucose levels in the blood, making it harder for cancers to grow. Cancer cells feed on glucose, consuming it at a much higher level than normal cells do,” says Mittal.
With the science clear in her mind, she spaces her food intake only for eight hours. “I respect my limits because I cannot send my body into shock mode. I follow a very simple mantra. I do not eat if I do not feel hungry. I always take small portions, do not overload my plate and risk indigestion. I always carry some nuts and a banana in my bag to sustain me for a short period of time should I get my hunger pangs in the middle of a traffic jam,” says Mittal. These simple hacks, in the end, work for everybody with a disease burden.
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