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  • leahbarrett1

A New View on Food

When you are diagnosed with cancer or any other chronic illness that affects your ability to eat, the definition of eating well changes.  But before I launch into today’s blog, I want to remind you that have an undergraduate and graduate degree in Nutritional Sciences and have been counseling a diverse population in both illness and wellness for over 20 years.

Defining what it means to “eat well” has always been controversial since I’ve been in the field. It’s not my intention to declare that I have the formula for the Perfect Diet for weight loss, more energy, better sex, a sharper mind, etc., etc., etc. If I did, I would have gotten rich by now. Instead, want to speak to our collective obsession with food and the apparent disconnect this food obsession has with health.

Before my cancer diagnosis, subsequent exploratory abdominal surgery and heavy chemotherapy, I used to eat like this:


You may or may not recognize this plate as representative of the Mediterranean Diet approach to eating: fatty fish, veggies and whole grains. Yes, this was my typical fare ever since I was in my mid-twenties and I still got cancer. Remember, I most likely got ovarian cancer at such a young age because I am a BRCA1 carrier. In case you’re wondering, this is not an excuse or justification for any of us to abandon what we have control of to reduce our risk of lifestyle diseases (including some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, etc.) such as eating well, exercise and stress reduction.

While enduring frontline chemotherapy I couldn’t tolerate my typical eating patterns. My “diet” while on chemotherapy looked nothing like the eating approach that I coach my clients to follow. I called it my “Survival Diet”. I went into surgery at 115 lbs and 13% body fat. Ten days post surgery I weighed 108 lbs with an even lower percent body fat. I was scared. After two cycles of chemotherapy I was 97 lbs and looked emaciated. I was beyond frightened. I focused on consuming calories and protein. I survived on simple carbohydrates, fat and easy to digest sources of protein. That meant all variations of white bread, tortillas, and crackers. That meant adding oils, butter and cheese to everything. That meant eating eggs almost everyday because I couldn’t tolerate any other animal form of protein. The only vegetable I was able to tolerate was cooked spinach. The only fruit I could occasionally get down was canned peaches.


Food was the enemy and yet my savior. I knew in order to get through the treatment, I needed to eat and gain weight. The medical team was ready to take me off the clinical trial. I was determined to not let that happen as I viewed this concoction of toxic medicines as my chance to beat the cancer. I had to give up my previous definition of eating well. Really….I had no choice. Nothing sounded good to me as I was perpetually nauseous and my mouth tasted like sour milk. To add to the challenge I was supposed to drink 64 ounces of fluid a day. I had my work cut out for me.

Fast forward to present day. It’s six weeks post frontline chemotherapy. The scale reads 112 lbs and 25% body fat as of yesterday. I’m breathing a sigh of relief that I was able to overcome this incredible challenge. And, I’m not speaking about the cancer. I’m talking about eating and drinking my way back to a healthy weight. I’m not done yet. I still want to gain more weight. I’ve been able to return to my previous definition of eating well: the Mediterranean Diet. Now that my taste buds are beginning to act like normal taste buds I’m grateful and thrilled to be able to enjoy the mixture of sweet and tart of a fresh peach, the peppery hint of arugula in my leafy green salad and the rich and buttery feel of king salmon on my tongue.

Earlier I mentioned the collective obsession we Americans have with food and how this doesn’t seem to translate to a healthier populous. In other words, we may have the knowledge and intention to “eat well”, but many of us rarely follow through for any consistent period of time. In other words, we are taking for granted that we can choose to eat well. We can, yet we don’t.

When I lost my ability to eat well, I grieved. Now that I am able to choose between eating to survive and eating for health I appreciate my life even more.

So, ask yourself. If you can eat well, to promote a longer, disease-free life why aren’t you? You have a choice.

#health #diet #chemotherapy #cancer #eating

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