Is There a Cancer Diet? 7 Practical Diet Tips for Cancer Patients by Dr. Constance Chen
In the wake of a cancer diagnosis, many patients realize that their diet may have contributed to their disease. Cancer is sometimes considered the “rich person’s disease” because high rates of cancer correlates with high amounts of meat, dairy and sugar in the diet. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that points to diet as a major contributor to a cancer diagnosis. Indeed, researchers are realizing that the standard American diet marketed by the meat and dairy industry may be the source of the high cancer rates in the United States.
Most cancers are glucose-based. For this reason, many cancer patients are advised to cut out sugar from their diet to eliminate their disease. Cancer cells are wiley, however, and if the glucose pathway is cut off it will mutate to feed off of other nutrients. Cancer cells can also feed off of glutamine, fatty acids, ketones and even dead cancer cells – a process known as autophagy.
The importance of specific nutrition for some diseases has long been known. Dietary prescriptions for diabetes and hypertension, for example, are sometimes as effective as medication. As we learn more about how cancer operates at the cellular level, targeting the metabolic abnormalities exhibited by cancer cells is a key area in cancer research that has yielded important findings.
Major cancer centers will often assign a nutritionist to a cancer patient. Nutrition has a major effect on survival and recurrence. In general, cancer patients are often advised to cut out meat, dairy and sugars. Red meats and nitrates, in particular, have been found to be carcinogenic. The best diet is a plant-based whole foods diet. Processed and refined foods – such as foods that contain white flour or white sugar – should be avoided.
Cancer is not one disease and there is a great deal more work to be done to determine the specific vulnerabilities of specific cancers. Some cancer cells will be "starved" by blocking sugar, some by blocking amino acids and others by blocking fats. No single dietary therapy is right for everyone, but proper nutrition is vital in aiding recovery and enhancing quality of life during treatment. In the absence of other directions from your oncologist, you should adopt a healthy, balanced diet, following the guidelines of the American Cancer Society.
Those guidelines do not endorse a particular diet but recommend which foods to emphasize and which to limit, while choosing foods that will help you reach and maintain a healthy weight:
- Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods. Include fruits and vegetables at every meal and for snacks. Choose whole fruits and vegetables over processed varieties; drink fresh juices that do not contain additional sugars. Avoid creamy sauces, dressings and dips.
- Eat whole-grain food rather than refined grains. Choose whole-grain breads, pasta and cereals (such as barley and oats) instead of breads, cereals and pasta made from refined grains; eat brown rice instead of white rice. Avoid refined carbohydrate, including pastries, candy, sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals and other high-sugar foods.
- Avoid red meats. Choose beans and possibly fish instead of red meats (beef, pork and lamb); prepare them by baking, broiling, or poaching rather than frying or charbroiling.
- Limit or avoid poultry.
- Avoid processed meats such as bacon, sausage, lunch meats and hot dogs.
- Avoid alcohol altogether.
- Do not drink sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit-flavored drinks.
Cancer is complicated. Different tumor cells feed on different fuels and what might help slow growth of one cancer might speed the growth of another. Research is ongoing and dietary guidelines for specific cancers and even for specific individuals is becoming a routine component of cancer treatment.
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