Food anxiety and breast cancer

If you feel different about food because of cancer, you are not alone. Being diagnosed with cancer can bring up many difficult emotions, including fear and guilt. Food plays a crucial role in nearly every aspect of people’s lives and when you are constantly worrying about the effect that food will have on your cancer, it can cause anxiety.  In extreme cases this may result in what is known as ‘orthorexia’ which is an obsession with ‘proper’ or ‘healthy’ eating. 

Although being aware of and concerned about the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being. Remember that our digestive health is closely linked to how we feel emotionally.  Anxiety may cause digestive disturbances such as bloating, diarrhoea, pain, heartburn or nausea. The stress of worrying about the food you are eating could be doing more harm than the food itself. Being afraid that something you eat will affect your cancer or encourage it to grow is normal, but it needs to be put into perspective. 

The tricky thing with food and nutrition is the sheer volume of information, particularly inaccurate information, that is so freely available.

A  lot of nutrition information and food science reporting gets over simplified and diluted, to create attention grabbing headlines.  Articles like ‘give up dairy products to beat cancer” , “healthy foods that cause cancer”, “red meat causes cancer”. These sorts of articles only provide you with small snippets of research, which are often highly exaggerated. The truth is usually always more complex, and is very much dependent on the individual.

So, while ensuring you are properly informed about nutrition is a great way to feel better about food choices, the mass of conflicting and misleading information can leave you more confused. This is where people often create a strict ‘good’ and ‘bad’ list of foods to eat. 

Food anxiety can often be the result of overestimating the impact of food on our body. There is no one single food that causes cancer because cancer is a multifactorial disease. Our greatest weapon in managing food anxiety is to put our thoughts into perspective. 

Forget about perfection and try to think more about eating using the 80/20 rule. That is,  you eat nutritiously 80 percent of the time and allow yourself a bit more freedom with the other 20 percent. Stop with the pursuit of perfectionism when it comes to your food. Food is important, but structuring your food with military precision can cause more harm through the anxiety that ensues. Remember it is long term repetitive behaviours that are more likely to be a problem, not the occasional slice of birthday cake. 

Anxiety is a natural human response that serves a purpose, and we shouldn’t aim to dismiss it. Instead, we should strive to make peace with it and learn to manage it. We often don’t realise it, but we can train our brains to think in particular patterns, and those patterns are often negative. We train ourselves to look back on the day and replay the less healthy foods we have eaten or maybe the one negative experience, rather than focussing on the abundance of positive events and choices we have made.  This process of focusing on the negative can leave us with feelings of guilt and anxiety. 

A positive journal is one of my favourite ways to start retraining your brain. Create a positive journal instead of a food journal. You could include anything you like, but here are some examples. 

  • “What was good about my day?”
  •  “What was good about my food choices today?”
  •  “What was good about my life/health today?”

 Reminding yourself about the positives can leave you feeling better about food, better about yourself and can reduce a lot of the stress and anxiety that goes along with food.