Nutrition and healthy eating is an essential component for our overall well being. The components of a nutrient-dense diet is particularly important when it comes to our breast health. It can help to reduce your risk of breast cancer and its chances of reoccurrence. To speak further on the topic of cancer and nutrition, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gina DeLuca.

Gina DeLuca is a Registered Dietitian for NYU Langone Health Perlmutter Cancer Center at Winthrop Hospital. She provides outpatient oncology nutrition care to patients, individually and in groups, on prevention-, treatment-, and survivorship-related topics. Gina received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from New York University and completed her Dietetic Internship at Massachusetts General Hospital prior to becoming a Registered Dietitian. Gina is currently pursuing specialized certification in oncology nutrition.

Q: What are the benefits of a well-nutritious diet for your overall well-being?

A: There are so many benefits! These include optimal physical and mental health, increased energy and strength, immune support, and prevention of chronic disease.

Q: Why is nutrition particularly important in breast health?

A: Healthful nutrition supports breast health to decrease inflammation, as chronic inflammation can create an environment that potentially increases breast cancer risk.

Q: What are some nutrients that our body needs to support our breast health during cancer treatment?

A: Adequate, though not excessive, protein intake is essential to support healthy, non-cancer cells during cancer treatment. Lean plant-based protein, if digestively tolerable, is encouraged as it provides an array of nutrients, including fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which are plant compounds with beneficial effects. Plant-based protein can be used to replace protein sources that contain cholesterol, saturated fat, excess sodium, and added refined sugars and starches. It’s important to keep in mind that the treatment phase for each cancer patient is a unique chapter in that person’s cancer journey, and each patient tolerates treatment in unique ways. With that in mind, I focus on optimizing our patients during that time by collaborating with them to maximize nutritional intakes based on individual food preferences, all foods being potentially inclusive.

Adequate water and non-caffeinated fluid intake is especially essential during treatment as it maintains proper hydration and reduces potential toxicities/side effects from treatment modalities, such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Q: What are some foods that are good for breast cancer patients? And why?

A: The “prudent and healthy” diet pattern that includes vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, whole grains, low-fat dairy products has shown to decrease cancer risk, and this applies to breast cancer risk as well. These foods offer lean protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and probiotics, and phytochemicals. In particular, cruciferous vegetables–broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, turnips, cabbages, brussels sprouts, and leafy greens including kale, bok choy, and arugula–as well as garlic, onions, and apples, have shown to offer an especially protective effect against breast cancer due to their particular phytochemicals.

Q: What are some foods we should limit when it comes to breast cancer prevention? And why?

A: Our Western, so-called “unhealthy” diet pattern, contains concerning components prevalent in many common foods. Processed meat, excessive red meat from non-organic sources, and excessive high-fat dairy products contain saturated fat. Saturated fat, processed meat, and alcohol have been shown to increase breast cancer risk and should be avoided. In addition, consumption of refined grains, flours, and sugar can cause a hormonal response involving excessive insulin–hyperinsulinemia–and refined oils provide hydrogenated/trans-fats which can cause inflammation. Therefore, refined grains/flours, refined sugars, and refined oils should be avoided to reduce or eliminate risk for inflammation caused, or made worse, by hyperinsulinemia.

Q: What are some nutrition tips to consider when meal planning/meal prepping for breast cancer patients?

A: The “plate method” is visual tool for maintaining focus on the types of foods and portion sizes to consume at meals, with half of a 9-inch plate to contain non-starchy vegetables and/or salad, and the remaining quarters to contain lean protein and whole grains, respectively. A fruit serving and a dairy serving can be provided on the side for nutritional balance to compliment this plate. I encourage a diet pattern that includes a “rainbow” of colored foods that provide a wide array of protective phytochemicals for disease prevention. These lead to a whole-foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet pattern, and within that, I especially appreciate the “flexitarian” creative approach to eating. This is a foundation of plant-based whole foods where either animal or plant protein source can be included, i.e. “flexed,” based on a person’s food preferences and nutritional needs. It’s perfect for those who may not be able to consume a solely plant-based diet but can still reap many of the benefits of it and maintain necessary protein intake.

Q: How did you get into the field of cancer nutrition?

A: I am so grateful for the opportunities that have come my way! My assigned undergraduate fieldwork experience was in oncology nutrition, and my love for this area of our dietetics field began there. That experience was enhanced by the outpatient oncology rotation in my dietetic internship, which was complemented by a food service rotation in the cafe that stood adjacent to the outpatient cancer center. My post-internship position in acute care was a natural next step as my focus there was largely dedicated to inpatient oncology care. Though my favorite position thus far is my current one in outpatient oncology care at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Winthrop Hospital. I love being part of our multidisciplinary teams, across various diagnoses, caring for patients whom we are fortunate to help in preparing for treatment, undergoing treatment, and readjusting post-treatment. We also develop and provide resources for cancer prevention within our community. It is very rewarding to help so many people along the continuum of cancer prevention, treatment, and survivorship.

Q: What are some of your favorite recipes you like to share with your clients?

A: The American Cancer Society offers numerous recipes, and their cookbooks are very user-friendly. Registered Dietitians Barbara Grant and Colleen Doyle and food columnist/cookbook author Jeanne Besser do an amazing job at creating many of these references. I especially enlighten patients to look at cancer-nutrition cookbook recipes by Holly Clegg and Rebecca Katz, as well as Cook For Your Life founder Ann Ogden Gaffney.

Q: Do you have any resources you would like to share?

A: Absolutely! These include (though are certainly not limited to):

  • American Institute for Cancer Research
  • National Cancer Institute
  • American Cancer Society–especially the recently released 2020 American Cancer Society Guidelines for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics–Oncology Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group

References (for this piece) include:

Cardiovascular Disease and Breast Cancer: Where These Entities Intersect: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association (American Heart Association Circulation journal, February 2018)

Dietary Guidelines for Breast Cancer Patients: A Critical Review (Advances in Nutrition journal, July 2017)

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