By LAURIE CHERENFANT
“That doesn’t belong there,” the doctor said as he looked over the PET scan results.
“It’s in your lungs. “Get it out,” Natanaelle Joseph, a 5-foot- 5-inch Brooklyn woman, yelled at her doctor.
Joseph, a 60-year- old Haitian immigrant weighing about 160 pounds, said that she religiously goes to the doctor at the beginning of every year for her check-up. Being a smoker for about 20 years, she knew just how important this was. But this year, something was different.
In May 2010, after carrying a dresser down some stairs, she felt a pain in her knee. She visited a doctor who told her there was nothing wrong with her knee. Skeptical, Joseph visited another doctor who told her she had arthritis in her knee. This doctor then referred her to yet another doctor who confirmed that she in fact had a tear and had to have surgery.
Preparing for surgery, Joseph had a full body X-ray done. The X-ray shed light on the darkness in her left lung.
“I wasn’t lucky, but I was lucky,” said Joseph, a retired nursing assistant from Flatbush. “I wasn’t lucky because I had cancer. I found it early—I had a mass in my lungs.”
Joseph always knew she had to quit smoking. After several attempts to quit—stopping the habit for up to three to six months at a time—finding out she had cancer forced her to slam the brakes on her addiction, helping her to stay smoke-free for three years. Little did she know, quitting could have been made easier if she was eating a healthy diet.
“Fruit and vegetable intake can help smokers quit and stay smoke free because of their strong antioxidant power,” said nutritionist Lauren Minchen, founder of Manhattan-based Lauren Minchen Nutrition, which counsels patients on nutrition-related diseases. “Often, cravings for nicotine and other addictive substances can mask nutritional deficiencies. Once fruit and vegetable intake reaches adequate level, these cravings may subside.”
Smoking has dropped 35 percent in New York City since 2002 as Mayor Michael Bloomberg pursued a vigorous strategy against it. But 14 percent of adult New Yorkers are smokers.
Cigarette smokers who seek out groups aimed at helping them to quit smoking often leave weekly meetings with pamphlets or cards with tips to help them stay clean. Of the many tips that are listed, the most neglected tip is to eat well. A
study published in January in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research looked at fruit and vegetable consumption in relation to quitting smoking. It found that eating healthy produce helped with not only quitting but staying smoke-free. “People who eat the most fruits and vegetables are three times more likely to give up cigarettes,” Karen Ansel, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said. “Since fruits and vegetables are higher in fiber and water—two nutrients that have been shown to keep us full—it’s plausible that people feel fuller and are less likely to confuse hunger with the urge to light up.”
In 2007, the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research surveyed smokers on food preference in relation to their smoking. Smokers commonly reported red meat and alcohol enhanced the taste of cigarettes while healthier foods such as dairy, fruits and vegetables made cigarettes taste bad.
“People who smoke want grilled meat,” Joseph, now an ex-smoker for three years, said. “That’s their preference.”
Instead of eating red meat, salmon and trout are preferred because they are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. They help smokers to stop smoking, and help repair arteries that have been damaged by smoking, said Margaux Harari, nutritionist and dietitian of Nutrition Energy in Midtown Manhattan.
It isn’t clear “if smoking cessation leads to higher consumption of healthy foods or if people who eat more fruits and vegetables are just more likely to stop smoking,” nutritionist Myrdith Chrispin of The Brooklyn Hospital Center said. “Antioxidants and phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables improve the health of lungs for people with asthma, wheezing and other respiratory ailments.”
This happens because toxic wastes are removed as the chemicals help to restore and build tissue, enhancing the immune system. A 16-gram intake of daily vitamin C is also helpful to an ex-smoker trying to regain lung health, Chrispin said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of 2009, 63 percent of the average American’s diet was comprised of processed foods. Only 12 percent of the diet was plant food such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, and the remaining 25 percent included meat, eggs, dairy, fish and other seafood.
One of the troubling concerns for a smoker who plans to quit smoking but never commits is the fear of gaining weight. It is hard for a smoker to quickly give up the smoking addiction because once he stops, his hands and mouth crave the motion of smoking a cigarette. Therefore, instead of smoking, a smoker on the path to recovery may turn to foods which aren’t always healthy. By choosing a healthy diet, Harari says, “Smokers are reducing the chance of weight gain once they do decide to quit.”
Because smoking helps to burn more calories than the body would normally burn, “it may be a struggle to keep from gaining unwanted pounds if a smoker is consuming a diet void of fruits and vegetables,” Harari said.
“Some people gain weight, some people don’t,” the pamphlet “Your Quit Smoking Diet” by ETR Associates, a non-profit health promotion program, states. “People who gain usually add about five to ten pounds.”
“Eating regular meals and snacks every four hours or so can help keep hunger at bay,” said Ansel, co-author of “The Calendar Diet: A Month by Month Guide to Losing Weight While Living Your Life.” “If people still have the urge to eat because they’re in the habit of having something in their mouths sugarless gum can be a good substitute.” “
Michen recommends that smokers consume five to nine servings of fresh or frozen fruits or vegetables daily, with vegetables making up most of the servings. “Generally the brighter the color of the fruit or vegetable, the higher the antioxidant and nutrient level,” she said. And don’t forget, Minchen said, that fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables are more nutritious than canned products.