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Cancer and Nutrition: Whole Foods, Not Empty Calories

WOW is it hard to find time to blog since I’ve gone back to work, but I will find a groove.  Though my posts may be more sporadic, they’ll still come!  There are animals to take care of, veggies growing like crazy in my garden, many a good recipe to share, and of course, many pictures to share of my little man.

As you know, cancer has been a major part of life since my mother and dear friend was diagnosed last year.  She is a firm believer in positive thinking, eating healthy food, and holistic medicine.  She and my father just went vegan!  She has a passion for nutrition (she should have been a nutritionist) and always wants to share tips with others.  I was so pleasantly surprised when I recently received a note from Jillian McKee, Complementary Medicine Advocate at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance and writer for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance blog, wanting to share a guest post with 1 Veggie at a Time readers.   She and my mother have similar ways of thinking about food and cancer.  Here is what Jillian has to say.

Cancer and Nutrition: Whole Foods, Not Empty Calories

A healthy diet rich in antioxidant vitamins and minerals boosts the immune system and nourishes the body’s cells for energy, alertness and overall wellbeing.  For those coping with a diagnosis of cancer and its treatments, getting enough of these nutrients is essential. One leading cause of cancer-related death is malnutrition. A diet emphasizing whole foods rich in immune-supporting nutrients, rather than the nutritionally empty “typical” American diet, not only improves quality of life, but also chances of survival.

Cancer itself, as well as the methods used to treat it, can place extreme stresses on the body and a diet rich in plant foods, healthy carbohydrates, proteins, and “good” fats can help counter cancer-related symptoms. These may include muscle wasting and weight loss, appetite changes, lack of energy, and the digestive problems that are associated with treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Diets high in processed, fatty foods, refined flours and sugar have just the opposite effect– sapping energy, promoting inflammation, and maybe actively feeding tumor cells.

According to a 2010 article in Today’s Dietitian magazine, researchers report that up to 80% of patients with cancer develop some form of clinical malnutrition and about 40% of cancer patients die from malnutrition complications rather than the disease itself.  Numerous studies have focused on ways to ensure that cancer patients stay well nourished, with adequate amounts of key nutrients that not only strengthen the immune system, but also support the body’s ability to fight the disease.

The “traditional American diet” is heavy in saturated and trans fats from processed foods, white flours, and sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup. This can contribute to inflammation, fatigue, lack of appetite, weight loss, digestive problems, and numerous other symptoms.

Those coping with cancer need whole foods that support the body’s fight against cancer and its related symptoms. Immune-boosting foods rich in antioxidant vitamins are essential for cancer patients. A variety of fruits and vegetables provide vitamins A, E and C, as well as cancer-fighting minerals such as zinc, manganese and potassium. Legumes, nuts and whole grains offer B-vitamins and minerals like iron, while low-fat dairy products contain Vitamin D and calcium, among other nutrients.

These foods provide energy and support recovery from surgery and treatment. Highly processed and meat-based protein sources high in saturated fats stress the body’s immune system, contributing to fatigue, weakness and slow recovery time.

White flour and simple sugars promote inflammation, creating oxidative stress that harms cell structures and may contribute to cancer growth.  These non-nutritious carbs also wreak havoc on the body’s insulin regulation, creating spikes in blood sugar that contribute to exhaustion, mood swings and appetite problems. Replacing these substances with complex carbohydrates such as oats, brown rice and other whole grains, as well as natural sugars like honey, regulates insulin production and provides other benefits. These foods take longer to digest and are rich in fiber so they actually aid the digestive system and lessen side effects from treatments for many cancers, including mesothelioma, colon cancer and leukemia.

Nuts, seeds and Omega-3 rich oils such as olive and flaxseed oil provide antioxidant support and reduce inflammation.  Used in place of the highly saturated and trans fats found in fast and processed foods, these natural oils restore energy, support the cardiovascular system and encourage healing.

Although the antioxidants and other nutrients found in whole foods provide optimum cancer-fighting support for the immune system, questions remain about the use of supplements to get high amounts of vitamins such as A, C and E.  Some studies suggest that intense antioxidant supplementation during cancer treatment can interfere with treatment outcomes and even promote cancer growth, while others remain inconclusive.

The benefits of natural antioxidants obtained from whole foods are clear: increased energy, better healing, and fewer complications. Cancer specialists from the National Cancer Institute as well as the American Cancer Society emphasize that while a whole-food, plant-based diet supports the body during cancer treatment and encourages recovery, dietary needs during cancer are as individual as the patients themselves.  Planning the best diet may require the help of a nutritionist experienced in working with cancer patients – but the “typical American diet” will certainly be off the table.

Follow Jillian’s blog here.
Follow her on Twitter here.

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