The Diet-Cancer Connection, Part One

If you’re in the process of beating cancer, or just trying to avoid it (and are there any other categories, really?) this should interest you.  I’m going to ramble a bit about the diet-cancer connection.

There is a well-established connection between sugar consumption and cancer (let’s add cancer to the list with diabetes and heart disease).  This includes processed sugars like white sugar, corn syrups, and even most fruit juices. Yet many cancer patients who request dietary advice from their oncology teams are told something like, “Just eat a balanced diet; eat whatever you want; keep the weight on during treatment”.

First of all, what’s a “balanced diet”?  That greatly depends on which food pyramid you believe in, making this advice vague at best.  Obviously “Eat whatever you want” is even worse…personally I would just eat cake.

Now, “keep the weight on” makes some sense.  Loss of muscle mass has been correlated with poorer prognosis.  However, the solution to this problem is NOT eating an abundance of burgers, pizza, cake, and ice cream.  That may help a patient maintain overall weight, sure, but only because they gain fat while losing muscle.

What’s causing cancer patients to lose muscle?

First of all, many chemotherapy drugs are designed to attack rapidly-dividing cells. Unfortunately, this describes most of our digestive system. As a patient loses intestinal cells to chemotherapy, they absorb nutrients from food less efficiently. Of course, radiation can also damage parts of the digestive system, depending on what area of the body is targeted.

Then there’s the cancer itself. In short, cancer uses a lot of fuel to produce a lot of waste. This diverts precious resources from the rest of the body. Cancer is toxic. Chemotherapy is toxic. My advice then, for people undergoing treatment, is: control what you can. This brings us back to diet.

I’m going to mention unhelpful foods first, because a lot of the things I personally think of when somebody says “eat whatever you want” would fall into this category. Here we go:

Meals that combine animal proteins with carbohydrates (hamburgers, pizza, pasta with meatballs) can be particularly difficult to digest, even for a healthy human. These types of foods are also devoid of natural enzymes which aid digestion (enzymes are destroyed in the cooking process). A hamburger bun is pretty much devoid of nutrients and enzymes, making it next to useless for someone with cancer. I could go on and on about which foods to avoid, and why. Here’s a short list, generally speaking: refined sugars, processed foods, dairy products, and meat from most land animals. Whether we should eat animals (grass-fed) and fish is debatable, and in my view, each of us should listen to our body to help find that answer. That said, avoiding meat and dairy for the first 2-3 months of recovery from cancer is advice I completely agree with.

So…what should we eat?

Two keys: raw vegetables and healthy fats. Why? Look at vegetables first: they deliver huge amounts of nutrients and enzymes which are relatively easy to absorb. Many of these phytonutrients possess scientifically proven anti-cancer, anti-angiogenesis, pro-apoptotic, immune-boosting, and antioxidant qualities. In other words, they help heal cancer while maintaining the proper function of every other cell in the body. Enzymes help us digest food, absorb nutrients, create energy, and eliminate toxic or allergenic compounds. Some enzymes have anti-tumor effects. Chlorophyll provides the building blocks to produce hemoglobin, which oxygenates our body (cancer is sometimes the result of a low-oxygen environment).

Okay, what about fats? For one thing, we need the right fats to produce every cell membrane in our body. This membrane determines what compounds enter and leave each cell, and in what proportions. Eating unhealthy fats is like providing low-quality materials to a home builder…you might expect bad things! It’s also worth noting that most healthy cells in our body can survive by burning fats. Cancer cells cannot. So if you can eat more healthy fats, and feel satisfied, you’re moving into a more healing state. Sources of healthy fats include tree nuts, seeds, coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado. There are a million websites out there that list healthy fats and how to incorporate them into your meals.

This may be a lot to digest, so I’ll leave you with one immensely practical tip. Have a salad. Yes, it’s that simple! Use organic veggies when possible, but don’t let the details stop you. Top it with sesame seeds or pumpkin seeds for flavor and extra crunch. Repeat as often as desired. And use a homemade dressing, like this:

2 tbsp olive oil
1.5 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 to 1/2 ripe avocado, whisked in
1/2 tsp sea salt or Himalayan salt
black pepper and crushed garlic to taste
(store in fridge – preferably in a glass container that seals tightly so you can shake it to mix!)

Full disclosure: I’m half Italian, and people laughingly tell me “You never measure anything or write recipes down!”…which I can’t refute. So yep. I’m going off memory here. You may find that it takes more lemon or more salt to really get this working for your taste buds!

I hope this has helped. Wishing you the best along your own path,

– Brandon

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