The Fundamentals of Healthy Eating for People with Cancer

Food and diet can be confusing and controversial. This is a wonder given that we humans have been eating from the beginning of our existence – yet somehow we have lost the plot? We now have more science on the subject than at any time in history, but it appears to have only confused us even more. So I’m not going to pick a fight with detractors wanting to take aim at me from atop their bandwagon (from experience this is inevitable :-). I’m just going to describe to you the most common, science backed ‘way of eating’ that people beating cancer are likely to adopt – including me.

Officially there is no diet prescribed for cancer patients. There are no dietary recommendations at all. When I raised this with my specialist he just shrugged his shoulders – not even so much as a referral to a dietician. I discovered that the problem is the way the research is done – the dismissal of diet is because they base their thinking on population wide studies looking for corelations that might just pop up. In order to establish a strong link between diet and cancer you have to look at specific compounds in food and their effect on cancer.

There are a number of foods that contain cancer killing compounds. This is science, not speculation. Cruciferous vegetables are a great example, along with plants of the Umbel family. Research into traditional diets in societies with very low cancer rates inevitably establish the health benefits of a plant based diet – for example the Mediterranean diet – because plants are rich with cancer killing compounds.

On the other hand meat – red, white or processed – contains compounds that are fuel for cancer, enabling cancer to proliferate (grow) or metastasise (spread). Pancreatic cancer, one of the most metabolically efficient of cancers, makes its energy from saturated fat and cholesterol. It is a meat eaters cancer, which is why I find the popularity of high protein and paleo diets so disturbing. Saturated fat may have been found innocent of all charges in respect of heart disease, but it is profoundly associated with cancer.

So what is the ideal diet? Eat foods that mitigate cancer and avoid those which promote it. For example, start with a low GI (Glycemic Index) diet. Cancer makes energy from multiple fuel sources and the primary metabolic pathway varies from cancer to cancer. However carbohydrates with a high GI are implicated as a fuel source to some degree in all cancers.

Table sugar and added sugar are ‘obvious’ sugars, but there are so many foods in our diet that break down into high GI, simple sugars too. Bread is an easy example, gluten free foods are virtually made of sugar (e.g.: tapioca flour, rice flour, potato flour), and actually any manufactured foods that contain carbohydrates (e.g.: noodles, cereals). The only way to avoid this ‘sugar attack’ is to avoid manufactured and processed foods, fast foods and take away. These are the ‘foods’ that actually promote cancer.

Vegetables are also primarily carbohydrate. However these carbohydrates are complex and have a low GI. Probably safe to assume that your cancer-mitigating diet will be comprised almost entirely of fresh vegetables with a focus on those with cancer killing compounds. And they will be either raw (salad or juice) or cooked at a low temperate in order to preserve the nutrients.

The vegetables with the most effective cancer mitigating properties are the cruciferous family – broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage etc. You can do an internet search for the full list. They are best eaten raw by making a salad out of them. Surprisingly this can be quite tasty. Of course you can add any other salad vegetables to the mix. I prepare my cruciferous salads to be eaten with a spoon – much better flavour.

Wash your veges by soaking them for a few minutes in a mix of white vinegar (cheap and easy to get) and water at 1:4. This kills bacteria and helps strip pesticides away. Then chop the veges up finely – about the size of a 20 cent coin. To the basic ingredients of cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli you can add mushrooms, capsicum, cucumber, snow peas etc etc. Then make a dressing from olive oil and vinegar. (I soak garlic, rosemary, thyme etc in the oil and vinegar overnight.) You need to use vinegar in order to stop any bloating that may occur from the digestion of the salad.

These cruciferous salads can form the basis of your diet. This is the fastest way to benefit from diet. It is also the most simple. It only gets more complicated from here. Make a big bowl of it and have the salad at least once but ideally twice a day.

You may want some variety, so you can stir fry the veges, adding herbs and spices for additional flavours.

There are many healthy foods that you can eat that may not have been part of your diet before cancer. Lentils are a good way to satisfy appetite, and so are tofu and quinoa. Tofu has been used for centuries in China for cancer therapy – it contains phytoestrogens that are invaluable for people with cancer.

Juicing is also a fantastic way to get cancer-mitigating compounds into your body. With a cold-press juicer, juice two kilos of carrots, a whole celery and three whole apples – skin and core are the most important parts of the apple. Drink a glass of juice four or five times a day. (I recommend that you get a ‘whole fruit juicer’ – it will save you a lot of time). Carrots contain the compound falcarinol which is being researched more thoroughly as scientists are catching on to the capacity of food to treat cancer. Celery contains a compound called apigenin which has been shown to be lethal to cancer in numerous studies. Apple cores are very high in probiotics, and the peel is high in ursolic acid, apigenin and other compounds which are cancer-mitigating. The compounds I have mentioned are only some – there are multiple others in these veges.

The advantage of juicing is that it will also help you stop snacking. Snacking is your nemesis. It almost always involves foods that are less than ideal. The juice I have described offers close to 150 calories per glass. Five glasses of juice for 750 calories is a healthy contribution to your calorie needs for the day. I found that if I hadn’t juiced that day I spent more time examining the contents of my fridge than I did when I had juiced 🙂

Fruit is complicated. There is a huge variety with some to be included in your diet and some to be avoided. Fruit is a great source of nutrients including vitamins and minerals. However sugar content is an issue, and also Vitamin C. In a normal world Vitamin C is a great thing. However low dose Vitamin C promotes cancer. (Vitamin C supplements are also to be avoided.) I discuss this in the complementary therapies guide.

This adds up to fruits that are low in sugar. It helps to look at the Glycemic Load (GL) of fruit rather than the Glycemic Index (GI). For example, the GI of watermelon is 74 – very high. However the GL is only 4 (11 being the medium range). The issue is that while the sugar in watermelon has a high GI, there is actually so little sugar in it that the net effect on your blood sugar is dramatically reduced. However, if you put the watermelon into a cold-press juicer you will remove the fibre etc. and increase the GL dramatically. So it is important to eat fruit or put it in a blender, not juice it (except apples).

For a while I was having a lot of fruit smoothies. That backfired badly. I was following the acid/alkaline diet, and fruit has a high alkalising capacity. The theory behind the acid/alkaline diet is that by maintaining an alkaline ‘environment’ the cancer would be unable to survive. However this theory is chronically reductionist and simplistic – there is so much more to it. A plant based diet – and specifically the way of eating that I am describing – is innately alkaline anyway.

The fruits I eat now are mostly in my breakfast smoothie. A small avocado, a banana, vanilla, and soy milk. And the apples I put in my vegetable juice. That’s it. I also have one of these smoothies after a resistance workout with a teaspoon of hemp protein. Because I am managing prostate cancer I have to be very careful of fat and protein intake, but even with exercise this is enough.

The macronutrients that our bodies rely on are carbohydrate, fat and protein. Some cancers, like prostate and pancreatic, love fat. Because cancer stem cells can adapt their metabolism so effectively they will switch to another pathway if they are denied their primary fuel source. For example prostate cancer stem cells will switch to the protein pathway if the fat pathway is blocked. All cancer stem cells have this ability to adapt. So therefore it is necessary to deny the stem cells of foods that fuel any and all of these pathways simultaneously.

While we are denying the body extra glucose as much as possible with a low GI / GL diet, we also have to manage fat and protein. This gets complicated. Obviously all our healthy cells need these as well.

There are many types of fat in our diet. The fats of most concern for us are saturated fat and Omega 6 – and for quite different reasons. They are both dietary fats and so we can control our intake. The saturated fat that most needs to be cut out of our diet is sourced from animals – beef for example. The final conclusion here is that all and any animal products are excluded from a cancer mitigating diet, including red meat or white meat of any type, poultry, eggs and dairy. Fish is something that can be re-introduced when your cancer markers have come down to ‘safe’ levels as fish is low in saturated fat. Please check this out:

Cancers (every cancer is different in many ways so I will use the plural) utilise saturated fat in a process called Fatty Acid Oxidation. By limiting saturated fat intake cancers are denied their fuel. If there is a lack of saturated fat the cancer will switch to Fatty Acid Synthesis – a process in which the cancer cells synthesise fat from glucose. However, as we have also restricted glucose intake with a low GI diet, that pathway is also inhibited.

However cancer stem cells are so adaptive that they will switch to the protein pathway. The proteins – or more specifically – the amino acids that cancers most prefer are glutamine and arginine. However your healthy cells depend on these amino acids, and so cutting these out is not an option. BUT you can choose a healthier, plant source of these – avocados and bananas for example.

Methionine is a unique amino acid that enables cancer cells to proliferate. As with any essential amino acid your body needs it too. But cancer loves it. It is abundant in animal foods, especially eggs and dairy. This is one of the many reasons that I avoid animal produce. However it is also available from plant sources but at a much more ‘cancer friendly dose’.

I found myself in a dilemma – I do resistance workouts that require protein for recovery. Prior to my cancer diagnosis I would have had poached eggs on sour dough rye after my workout. (Even thinking about it makes me hungry!) Now I throw a teaspoon of hemp protein into my avocado and banana smoothie. Clean food that seems to do the trick – my recovery is fine. All plants have amino acids of different types and so a plant based diet will still provide all the protein you need at a much healthier dose than meat, eggs and dairy.

The other fat of concern is Omega 6. This fatty acid is ‘the mother’ of inflammation. It enables cancer to proliferate. The excessive amount of Omega 6 in the western diet has been associated with many diseases due to its inflammatory action. It is found in high amounts in processed and take-away foods, especially fried foods as vegetable oils are high in Omega 6. And, unfortunately, it is also very high in seeds, beans and nuts. And I love nuts! Nuts are also very high in saturated fat and so you are going to have to check that they are suitable for your cancer type if you want to eat them.

And then there are grains. I can keep this short: grains are out until you have your cancer under control. Brown rice, whole wheat – doesn’t matter. Grains are very high in Omega 6 and are also high GI. I love grains. I can eat them until they come out my ears. They are so addictive it is ridiculous. Giving up grains has been a big test of my self discipline – even now. I’m a grain-a-holic and I just take it one day at a time 🙂

And then there is the ketogenic diet. The obvious issue with this diet is that it is very high in saturated fat. And also methionine. The less obvious issue is that ketones, which have a very similar molecular structure to glucose, are the preferred source of energy for some cancers. In fact they power some cancers. For cancers like prostate or pancreatic it would be a very bad idea. I only know of the ketogenic diet to be useful for certain brain cancers – but if it is of interest to you just make sure that you have researched how it will interact with your cancer type.

And a last word on sugar. It has been discovered that sugar strips Vitamin C out of white blood cells, making them ‘sluggish’. White blood cells are your immune cells. What this means is the sugar directly undermines your immune function. Consider how much sugar has been included in your diet until now (excluding the complex sugars in fruits and veges) – sugar in your tea or coffee, sugar in your cakes and biscuits, sugar in your ‘treats’, added sugar in your food, sugar in your drinks, refined carbohydrates like bread and pasta, etc etc. The western diet is soaked in sugar. And here we are – dealing with a cancer epidemic.

A cancer diet may initially seem very restricted. You may be cutting out a lot of what you have been eating while trying to figure out how to eat these ‘new things’. You can start with the basics:

You could begin with a focus on cruciferous veges. Use them in the cruciferous salad I described, or in a stir fry. You can use tofu as the ‘filler’ as grains are out, and tofu is a valuable component of a cancer-mitigating diet.

Next on my list are all the salad veges. Maybe you can have a fresh bowl of salad in the fridge for snacking on.

Fruit is limited to those that are low in sugar. Avocados and ladyfinger bananas are pretty much it for me, and perhaps surprisingly dates have a low glycemic load, but you must keep consumption to a minimum.

Cooking oils are a bigger subject than you might imagine. So to cut a long story short, the only oils safe to use are virgin cold pressed olive oil, and coconut oil. Use the coconut oil for cooking.

And sorry, but no alcohol. Don’t even think about it. Coffee and tea are out until your markers come down. After that, plunger coffee (no instant coffee) with honey and soy milk.

And get onto all those recipe sites – search for grain-free vegan dishes – you will be pleasantly surprised!

Okay, so I’ve covered the basics. This whole cancer thing is a big journey and this is a start. In case you were wondering – you will get your head around it. No doubt it is a huge challenge to completely change your diet – it is a whole new world for many people.

The stress and grief of a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. Changing your diet can be stressful and overwhelming too – especially if you are in a panic. A healthy, cancer mitigating diet is very accessable. You may need support and help in making this happen, but don’t cause yourself grief over the whole process. Breathe into it and know that you are helping yourself overcome cancer. You will get this right, one step at a time.

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