Cancer patient eating

Is There a “Cancer Diet”?

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 wily, 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.

no red meat

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.

Constance M. Chen, MD, is a board-certified plastic surgeon in New York City with special expertise in the use of innovative natural techniques to optimize medical and cosmetic outcomes for women undergoing breast reconstruction. She operates at Lenox Hill Hospital, and holds appointments as Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Weill Cornell Medical College and Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Tulane University School of Medicine. 212-792-6378

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