Nutrition and Cancer
When patients ask about nutrition many oncologists say the role of nutrition in a cancer treatment plan is insignificant. Their main concern, in relation to diet, is generally making sure their patient does not experience significant weight loss.
There are now many scientific studies that show nutrition does make a difference in cancer treatment and prevention. By practicing integrative oncology, we make room for the importance of nutrition in any cancer treatment plan.
Do you know what’s in your food?
This is an important question. Being mindful of our food intake is critical to any cancer treatment plan. Often we don’t think about what our food actually consists of, and where it comes from. In the west, we have access to an abundance of different foods throughout all seasons of the year which has led to a sense of complacency and a disconnect with our food sources. When we learn about our food — what it is and where it comes from — we can modify our diets to best suit our health needs.
Our current environment, more than at any other time in human history, is laden with toxins. While we can’t completely eliminate all environmental toxins, we can focus on the toxins we can control, mainly, the toxins in our food. One of the largest contributing forms of toxins is those that end up in our food, either through the environment itself or by being added during commercial preparation.
There are more than 2,500 different additives and an additional 12,000 chemicals that may find their way into our food. Dr. Larry McCleary stated that roughly 80% of the food found on the shelves in our grocery stores did not exist 100 years ago. Processed foods are offered in abundance, touted as “convenience food,” and labeled with deceptive marketing points. They contain ingredients we can’t even pronounce.
Some of the main chemical additives in use today include:
- BHA — preservative; known carcinogen but recognized as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) for consumption by the FDA. Endocrine disrupter.
- BHT — found to trigger certain cancers in rats, however, human studies are lacking. Endocrine disrupter.
- Propyl Paraben — known to influence genes which have been found to be important in certain types of breast cancer. Also found to accelerate breast cancer cell growth. Endocrine disrupter.
- Sodium Nitrite — commonly found in processed meats. A common method of preservation. It is now being found to be carcinogenic, particularly in digestive tract cancers.
Other environmental chemicals include:
- Aflatoxins — some of the most carcinogenic, naturally occurring substances. They are generally found in fungus and molds.
- BPA — used to make plastics. Dangerous when heated.
- Glyphosate (Roundup) — carcinogenic. Contaminates many non-organic fruits and vegetables.
- rGBH — bovine growth hormone used to enhance milk production in dairy cows. Contains IGF1 which is known to play a role in hormone-related cancers, but also found to drive other types of cancer.
Plant-Based Dietorganic plant-based diet is ideal for cancer treatment
What should I not be eating?
- Processed foods
- GMOs (genetically modified foods)
- High glycemic foods
- Cured meat
- Trans fats
- Avoid traditionally grown foods contaminated with mycotoxins such as wheat, corn, and peanut
Methionine is an amino acid required for cancer cell growth, however, normal, healthy cells do not need it. A study was conducted and concluded that when methionine was restricted, cancer cells could not survive.
The best way to restrict methionine is through the diet. A diet high in organic fruits and vegetables limits sources of methionine greatly. There is also very little methionine in grains and legumes.
High methionine foods include many high protein foods — fish, chicken, red meat, and dairy (moderate levels).
Some dairy is OK, preferably organic. You can also have meats — a healthy animal protein such as grass-fed beef, or organic free-range chicken — from time to time, one or twice a week but I do not recommend having it daily.
What do I eat?
There is so much information, misinformation, and conflicting information in the area of nutrition and cancer that it can be very overwhelming and frustrating to sort through it all. You will hear about ketogenic diets, low-carb diets, low-fat diets, vegan diets, and raw food, plant-based diets. It’s all very confusing. Patients want to do what they can nutritionally to support their cancer treatments, and it’s hard to sort through all of the information. I can tell you that, in my experience, a plant-based diet is best for most cancer patients.
You are what you eat. The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional biochemist, and professor at Cornell University, is by far the most-cited study that concluded that people who ate a plant-based diet were less likely to die from cancer, among other diseases. I believe that much of the anti-cancer benefits associated with a plant-based diet are likely the result of rich antioxidant and phytonutrient content inherent in a plant-based diet. Further, an organic plant-based diet is most ideal for cancer treatment nutrition.
1g of protein per 1kg of body weight per day. For most people, it will be between 50 to 60 grams of protein per day.
How much methionine? The goal is under 1000mg per day (1g). (link online to methionine in foods chart). In general, a normal serving of animal protein contains between 600 to 800 mg of methionine. As you can see, one serving can bring your methionine level close to your daily maximum. This is why it is important to focus on a plant-based diet.
We want enough, but not too much. You do not need to eliminate, or even minimize carbohydrate intake.
You will get lots of carbohydrates in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
These naturally occurring carbohydrates are buffered by fiber which is important in regulating the blood sugar response in the body to high carbohydrate foods. Be mindful of not ingesting foods that have eliminated the fiber, including many juices. Sticking with fruits and vegetables in their original, raw form is a good way to be sure you are getting the fiber you need. You may make juice yourself with a juicer, but I do not suggest buying pre-made juice as it is highly processed and stripped of much of the naturally occurring fiber.
Studies from Otto Warburg show that cancer prefers sugar/glucose. Glucose can be found in many foods today, particularly highly processed foods. While this is true, it has now been found that cancer cells can also use other forms of fuel including protein and fat.
In general, sugar in most processed foods should be avoided. This can include flour-based products like bread and pasta.
For many years we’ve been told that fat is bad. Although fat is calorically denser than protein or carbohydrates, it is not the evil it has been portrayed as.
We need fat, and we should get them from healthy sources including:
- grass-fed butter
- medium chain triglyceride oil
Again, we don’t want to eat too much fat, but we also don’t want to eat too little.
Sourcing the Best Foodscommit to creating a lifestyle rather than a diet
Organic vs. Conventional
It is my experience that organic foods are best, especially in relation to cancer treatment plans. It eliminates the chances of harmful pesticides being present in or on the produce we eat. Further, hormones and antibiotics are not used on organically raised animals. Sourcing organic, grass-fed beef, and free-range chicken is best.
We need to be eating a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. We don’t need to go overboard eating any one type of nutrition, but we also don’t want to go too low in any of them, either. If you are eating a predominantly plant-based diet, avoiding methionine, and avoiding processed foods, you will have the best anti-cancer diet available.
It is important to drink 1/2 your body weight (in lbs) in ounces of water. Traditional Chinese medicine suggests drinking water between meals instead of with meals. This is thought to improve digestion and absorption. That said, there are no studies that support this theory, but it may be something you want to try, especially if you are having any sort of digestive issues.
Both have anti-cancer effects. Organically sourced is best. Just be careful with adding cream or sugar. If you need to use a sweetener, I highly recommend using Stevia.
Nutrition and cancer is a confusing topic and you can easily become overwhelmed. There are so many theories out there, and friends and family are all going to have their opinion. That said, my nutritional recommendations for cancer patients are based on the most up-to-date research paired with my clinical experiences with my patients.
When making the changes we’ve discussed here, it may take time for your body and mind to adjust. It is not uncommon to experience headaches, fatigue, irritability, and cravings. Just remember, your body will adjust. Once you get through the transition phase, you will find that you feel better with improved energy and better focus.
If you decide to make these changes, commit to creating a lifestyle rather than merely a diet. A lifestyle is long-term, whereas a diet implies a short-term commitment.
If all of this seems daunting, please keep in mind that what you eat makes a significant difference. A large study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, one of the world’s foremost oncology journals, found that women with breast cancer who ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and exercised for 30 minutes a day, six days a week, cut their chances of dying in half in the first two years following their diagnosis.
What you eat matters – a lot. It greatly impacts the outcome of treatment, and ultimately, survival.
I consider nutrition extremely important. Not only is it a tool in our cancer-fighting toolbox, but it is something you can control from home every single day. You have control of this very powerful treatment in your arsenal. Make it work for you.