Recently, I went to see a nutritionist with expertise in cancer-fighting diets. And then consulted another cancer nutritionist by phone.
I have to admit, I was skeptical before I spoke to these experts. The last time I encountered a nutritionist/dietician, back in high school, the information she presented was so basic — pretty much common sense — that I had difficulty maintaining consciousness during her talk. So when my integrative medicine physician at the cancer center where I go for treatment recommended consultation with a nutritionist, I wasn’t exactly eager to comply. It has been my experience, reading around on nutrition and diet, that everybody has their own point of view. Nutritional opinions have become sort of like a political party — and we all know how discussions of politics go in polite society.
But I’m a good patient, so I made the appointment.
I was pleasantly surprised. I found the nutritionist’s approach refreshing and perceptive. Rather than rattle off an agenda for me, she spent the better part of the first hour sitting back and finding out how I eat and why. (No nutritional consultation is going to help if this listening — on the part of the nutritionist — isn’t an integral part of it.) And when I mentioned that I had recently read The China Study and had been convinced by its arguments for a plant-based diet, she simply nodded and smiled. If you aren’t familiar with this study (also a book), it’s the largest and most comprehensive study of nutrition and human health ever conducted, a joint project of Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. No rinky dink establishments, these three institutions.
It’s called the China Study, not surprisingly, because it was conducted in China. The 20-year study analyzed death rates from 48 forms of cancer and other chronic diseases, as well as diet and bloodwork, among 6,500 people. The study was made possible by the fact that the Chinese counties involved were populated by genetically similar people who tended to live in the same place for a long time, with few changes to their diets. For more on the China Study, click here.
The China Study found that the people who ate a plant-based diet (avoiding animal products such as beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, and milk, and reducing their intake of processed foods and refined carbohydrates) escaped, reduced or reversed the development of chronic diseases, including cancer. I suggest you explore the China Study in some depth. I think its findings will intrigue you.
But back to my trip to the nutritionist. After I mentioned the China Study, I was expecting a debate on its merits. Instead, the nutritionist calmly noted that she had read the China Study, too, and largely agreed with its findings. Over the years since the study was first published (2005), however, she has filled in some of the blurriness around its edges.
The experts behind the China Study weren’t clinical nutritionists, you see. They were, for the most part, biochemists and epidemiologists. To apply the study’s findings to a specific person’s diet requires some finesse — and my nutritionist has finesse in spades. This blog post relates some of the advice she offered, as well as later advice I received from a separate cancer nutritionist, all of which I found to be extremely valuable.
Adequate protein is a must for cancer patients
Since I altered my diet at the beginning of the year, I have been besieged by comments from other people about the lack of protein in a vegan diet. Most of these people know very little about veganism, yet they are convinced the diet is inferior when it comes to protein. It isn’t really. The surprising truth is that people on “regular” diets probably get way too much protein, and people on vegan diets get plenty from plant-based sources. But if you’re a cancer patient, and particularly if you are undergoing rigorous treatment such as surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, it’s important to up your intake of protein.
The nutritionist reassured me that this can be done, but you have to plan carefully. For example, after hearing that my lunch consists primarily (often only) of green juice or a green smoothie (vegetable based drinks), she offered tips on how to bump up the protein content with hemp, a product of the cannabis plant (yes, that cannabis plant, but non-psychotropic varieties). (Not to worry, hemp won’t alter your mind.)
Most hemp-based foods start with the seeds, which can be eaten whole, ground, made into milk, sprouted, smoothed into butter, or steeped in teas. Hemp leaves can be eaten as well.
When it comes to protein, hemp is essentially “complete” — meaning it contains all 21 amino acids (although we now know you don’t have to eat complete proteins to reap their benefit). Hemp is also loaded with essential fatty acids, including the very important omega 3s, which reduce and help prevent inflammation. The nutritionist suggested that I add hemp milk or butter to my smoothies to boost their protein level.
For protein, she also recommended nut butters such as almond and cashew. (Little known fact: Peanuts are not nuts, but legumes.)
Some grains, such as quinoa and millet, are high in protein and can be combined with fruit to create a tasty morning porridge. (I try to avoid eating much wheat because of concerns about its inflammatory nature.)
And, of course, beans (including soybeans and products, such as tofu, derived from them) are other good sources of protein.
Eat across the color spectrum
Once you ensure you are getting adequate protein for your needs, focus on plants. Vegetables are anticancer powerhouses. Green vegetables such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, spinach, kale, and collards, for example, are packed with nutrients, antioxidants, enzymes, and other allies in your fight against cancer. Leafy salads also are good — and not just because they contain a lot of green, but also because they are consumed raw, preserving many important enzymes. Other colors are equally important — the vibrant orange of carrots and sweet potatoes, the crimson shades of red peppers and cabbage, the deep yellow of squash. By eating across the color spectrum, you can ensure that you take in the full range of nutrition nature has to offer. And by processing vegetables as little as possible (eating them raw or lightly steamed or sauteed), you preserve as much of their healthy power as possible.
In the interest of space, I will stop here. I hope this post has provided “food for thought” and that you will explore the China Study, as well as another useful book on cancer nutrition, Life Over Cancer, by Keith Block, MD, an integrative oncologist.
Here’s one last tidbit for your to munch on: A short video of cancer thriver Kris Carr discussing how she turned to veganism (partly as a result of the China Study).
The bottom line: Many oncologists are not well versed in nutrition, so it can pay dividends to seek out someone with expertise in nutrition for cancer patients. One oncologist I consulted told me to avoid all antioxidants during chemotherapy — a blatant untruth. I don’t want to encourage you to disregard your oncologist’s advice — just to take it with a grain of salt and continue researching on your own or through other reputable sources. Your quality of life — and, possibly, your life itself — may be on the line.
Updated February 21, 2015.