Grocery shopping with an eye toward choosing the most nutrient-dense foods is one of the most important changes you can make when you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer. By increasing your awareness of which foods in the grocery store are the most nutritious, you can “health up” your kitchen and make it an integral part of your healing plan.
If your kitchen is like most, there’s a good chance it has a few dirty little secrets hidden in the cupboards and lurking in the refrigerator. Sugary cereals, candy bars, soda, unhealthy oils, and other common items line many pantry shelves. Your kitchen may even have foods that contain unseen toxins in the form of preservatives, herbicides, pesticides, and hormones.
But don’t despair; creating a healthier kitchen doesn’t mean giving up the things you love most. There are healthy alternatives for almost all of your favorite foods—you just need to know what to look for. Join me as we take a virtual tour of the grocery store and learn some great tips for stocking a healthy kitchen.
Step 1: Clear the Clutter
Look through your pantry and clean out the food that shouldn’t be there. Chips, cookies, soda, synthetic sweeteners, anything with food coloring in it—all should go straight in the trash. Also remove all products containing hydrogenated fats and those with a high sugar content. This purge will allow you to restock your cupboards with healthy options for quick snacks and with ingredients that will allow you to create meals that are both nutritious and easy to prepare. Now it’s time to head to the store to stock up on good food.
Step 2: Stake Out the Store and Fill Your Cart
Most grocery stores fill the perimeter of the store with perishable goods, including dairy, produce, meats, and seafood—all healthy options. If you’re aware of this ahead of time, you’ll know to hit this nutritious perimeter area first, before you make your way down the aisles, which is where the not-so-healthy snacks are usually found.
The dairy section offers many healthy selections, but be sure to choose your products carefully. The most important factor in choosing dairy product is to buy organic, which should be clearly labeled on the front of the package or with the words USDA organic. Such products are guaranteed organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). When you choose organic options, you avoid ingesting bovine growth hormone (BGH), which is used in the production of almost all nonorganic dairy products in the United States. The use of BGH injections in dairy cows is controversial because hormones ingested from dairy foods act as hormones in our own bodies and may affect our endocrine systems. An organic label also ensures that the animals that produced the product were not fed grains that were treated with pesticides and herbicides. Most stores now carry a wide selection of organic dairy products, offering you the same variety that you have come to expect with nonorganic products (such as low-fat and lactose-free options).
Also on the store’s perimeter, the produce section is a literal cornucopia of nutrient-packed foods. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of phytochemicals, which support various aspects of our immune systems. Fill your cart with a variety of colors, and always take home enough dark leafy greens to get you through to the next shopping trip. When buying organic produce, be sure that it is labeled with the USDA organic seal. This means that the producers observe organic growing rules established by the USDA Organic Standards Board and have been inspected by agencies licensed by the USDA to ensure that specific rules and standards are followed.
Because organic produce is usually more expensive than nonorganic varieties, most people don’t buy organic all the time. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.–based, nonprofit environmental research organization, recommends buying organic varieties of produce whose nonorganic counterparts are typically high in pesticides (see “Prioritizing Organic Produce”).
As you continue around the perimeter of the store, you’ll also want to make a stop at the seafood counter. Seafood is rich in protein and essential fatty acids. The general rule for choosing healthy fish is to eat only small fish such as sardines, trout, and other wild fish less than 4 feet in length. The large fish have lived long enough to build up heavy metals in their tissue. Also, farmed fish should be avoided as they are fed junk food (such as genetically engineered soybean pellets that are contaminated with agricultural chemicals and colored with red dye no. 40). In all cases try to buy fish that is fresh or fresh-frozen, and local is always best when possible.
The meat department is also on the perimeter with the other perishables. During cancer treatment consider meats a side dish rather than the focus of a meal, and always buy the highest-quality meats available. Organic, free-range chicken and turkey are lower in fat than red meat and can be made into meatloaf and meatballs and used as an alternative in many meat dishes. Wild game and grass-fed beef are the best red-meat choices as they contain less saturated fats and more essential fatty acids than grain-fed cattle (common beef products).
Aisle 1: Protein Bars
Now that we have perused the perimeter, we can start down the aisles and stock the pantry. Though many people head straight for the protein bar section in hope of finding easy, healthy treats, make your choices here carefully. This section is full of snacks that resemble candy bars nutritionally, so be sure to read labels to look for bars made from whole foods that don’t have too much sugar.
Aisle 2: Crackers
This is another area where you need to be especially careful. Many of the products here include unhealthy ingredients, such as white flour, hydrogenated oils, food coloring, and loads of salt. Avoid junk-food snacks in favor of whole-grain crackers such as Wassa, Rye Crisp, Kavli, and Swedish Rye Crisp.
Aisle 3: Canned Foods
Canned foods can also provide a great foundation for many meals. They are also very practical because they have such a long shelf life. You can buy items on sale that will often last for a year or two in the panty. Canned beans are a great source of fiber, iron, protein, and minerals. Add them to soups, salads, and casseroles or whip them up into dips such as hummus. Organic, low-fat refried beans are a staple in my house. Spread refried beans on a corn tortilla and serve with eggs; or make nachos with organic baked chips and serve with generous helpings of salsa and avocado slices. (Yes! Salsa counts toward your servings of vegetables for the day, so you can actually feel good about digging into these nachos!)
Canned organic tomatoes are a rich source of cancer-protecting nutrients such as lycopene. When you add other canned staples like lentils and vegetable broth, you can put together a nutritious soup on short notice.
Canned fish such as skipjack tuna, wild salmon, and sardines are excellent sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Avoid other types of canned tuna because they contain questionable amounts of mercury. Mix a can of tuna with light mayo for a sandwich, or toss a can of salmon into a salad.
Aisle 4: Cooking Oils
Buy extravirgin olive oil; it is best for cooking and making salad dressings. The extravirgin designation indicates that the oil came from the very first press of the olives, so no chemicals were used in the extraction process. It also contains the highest levels of heart-healthy polyphenols. If possible, buy Spanish extravirgin olive oil as it was found in numerous studies to contain the highest levels of polyphenols and is believed to be the magic bullet that makes a Mediterranean-type diet so protective against disease. Currently, there are not a lot of agricultural chemicals used in olive farming, so buying organic is not nearly as important as buying extravirgin.
Aisle 5: Cereal, Pasta, and Grains
Dried foods such as cereal, pasta, and grains can also be great staples in your healthy pantry. Choose pastas made from whole grains and even beans. If you are sensitive or allergic to wheat, you can opt for rice-based pasta. If you are trying to boost your protein intake, try soy pasta, which is incredibly high in protein as well as fiber.
Dried grains such as quinoa cook quickly, making a nice base for stir-fry vegetables. I use this grain instead of rice because it is high in protein and takes just a few minutes to cook to perfection. If you prefer rice, opt for brown rice over white; brown rice contains the fiber-containing bran and germ, which offer fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamin E.
Look for dry cereals made from whole grains that are high in fiber as well as protein (Kashi Go Lean is a good option). Any cereal you choose should be high in fiber (at least 4 percent) and low in sugar (as close to zero as possible). Add yogurt and fruit for a touch of sweetness. If you like hot cereal, unsweetened steel-cut oats are a wonderful choice as they are low on the glycemic index, are high in fiber, and help reduce cholesterol levels.
The bulk foods section in your grocery store is a great place to stock up on nuts and seeds, which pack a wallop of nutrition because they are dense with protein and healthful fats. The American Heart Association says that we can reduce our risk of heart disease by 50 percent by eating just one handful of nuts each day. Snack on cashews or toasted almonds, add sunflower seeds to salads, toss sesame seeds into Asian dishes, or eat nuts ground as nut butters.
Aisle 6: Tea and Coffee
When you cruise by the tea and coffee, choose herbal teas, as well as green, white, and black teas. They are filled to the brim with phytochemicals, which are natural plant substances that help prevent the cell damage that causes disease. And if you’re stuck on sweetening your morning cup of tea, one of the changes that can make the most profound difference in your overall health is to switch from synthetic sweeteners—many of which have been linked to cancer, joint pain, and headaches—to more healthful sweeteners. Natural sweeteners such as agave syrup and honey can be used in small quantities. And if you want to avoid the simple carbohydrates, look for chicory products such as Just Like Sugar or the alcohol derivatives such as Xylitol, maltitol, mannitol, and sorbitol.
Buy fair-trade, shade-grown organic coffee, which is free of pesticides and other chemical additives.
Aisle 7: Frozen Foods
Though you may think you need to avoid the freezer section to bypass ice cream and salt-laden pizzas and TV dinners, this section is actually full of wonderful additions to your healthy kitchen. Grab some frozen juice and vegetables, frozen sprouted-grain bread (such as Ezekiel brand), frozen corn tortillas, and frozen organic fruit for smoothies.
Aisle 8: Seasonings and Spices
Don’t forget a stop by the seasoning and spice aisle. Having a variety of fresh or dried seasonings on hand will reduce your reliance on the old and unhealthy standbys of salt and sugar and will add a great kick to some of your favorite foods. Dried oregano contains oils that help cleanse the body of bacteria and parasites, pepper is a rich source of potassium, and rosemary is currently being studied for its immune-protecting ability.
Step 3: Check Out, Head Home, and Stock Your Healthy Kitchen
Time to check out! Once your kitchen has been restocked, making healthy choices at home will be second nature, and return trips to the grocery store will be easier as you automatically reach for these foods that nourish, energize, and satisfy the body.
Step 4: Use a Few of Your Newly Purchased Ingredients to Create a Healthy Snack
Satisfying Smoothies to Soothe the Soul and the Stomach
Select one of these delicious recipes from Daniella’s More Smoothies for Life (Random House, 2007) cookbook and put your healthy ingredients to work. Then sit back, relax, and enjoy!
Preparation of all of these smoothies is as simple as adding all the ingredients to a blender and processing until smooth.
Thick and creamy, this chocolate milkshake is powerful medicine.
1 cup milk
1 frozen banana, cut in thirds
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
In addition to protein, dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals, nutritional yeast contains functional and beneficial components such as beta-1,3 glucan, trehalose, mannan, and glutathione. Studies have shown that these components have such potential health benefits as improved immune response, reduction of cholesterol, and anticancer properties.
Yield: 1 serving
This combination is very light, fresh, and surprisingly sweet.
1 cup carrot juice
1 clove of fresh garlic, sliced
½ cup apple juice
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Clinical studies have found that ginger reduces the pain and the swelling caused by osteoarthritis and that ginger relieved pain and/or swelling in 75 percent of arthritis patients. Apples are also a good source of the following nutrients: polyphenols, which are known for their antimicrobial action and infection-prevention abilities; glutathione, a potent antioxidant that helps prevent heart disease and cancer; and malic acid, a fruit acid that is a powerful chelator, or binder of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Carrots are rich in the fat-soluble vitamins known as carotenoids that protect cells from environmental damage.
Yield: 1 serving
Strawberries and Cream
This creamy strawberry shake is full of energy-supporting nutrients and protein. It can be a snack or a meal replacement.
1 cup vanilla soymilk
½ cup plain yogurt
1 cup frozen strawberries
½ cup silken tofu
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, yogurt has probiotics, and soy is a protein source. A powerful cancer-prevention agent in berries is ellagic acid, present as ellagitannins in the tiny seeds of strawberries, raspberries, black raspberries, and blackberries, which has shown promising results in inhibiting tumor growth. Ellagic acid appears to work by acting as an antioxidant, deactivating specific carcinogens, and helping slow the reproduction of cancer cells.
Yield: 2 servings