Christmas celebrations often revolve around food, which can be a tough thing if you’re going through cancer. Maybe it reminds you of the fact that your favorite holiday meal tastes differently during treatment and you won’t be able to enjoy it like you usually do. Or, maybe it makes you acutely aware of the notion that you should be eating healthily but you’re craving all the sweets, but apparently sugar feeds cancer (we’ll get to debunking myths real soon, read the next section to feel better).
We’re here to spread a bit of informed, science-backed, research-approved tips on what to eat when you have cancer and help you make it through the holiday season with less guilt, more health, and a smile on your face. War On Cancer teamed up with World Cancer Research Fund Matt Lambert and Adele Hug, Health Information Officer and Specialist Oncology Dietician respectively, to share what’s true about cancer and food and how to approach nutrition in a psychologically and physically healthy way.
Let’s start by answering some common questions about food and cancer to figure out what’s true, and then dig into how to optimize your taste palate in the run-up to all the Christmas food.
Does sugar feed cancer?
This is probably one of the most common questions about food and cancer and what you should eat, and it’s especially relevant during the holiday season as many are surrounded by sweets and treats. Matt Lambert, Health Information Officer at World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), shared with us his insight on what science says about sugar and cancer:
Low carbohydrate, high fat diets, and ketogenic diets are all real buzzwords out there, and there is a lot of misinformation out there about how you can reduce your risk of cancer or eliminate the risk completely if you eat this and that and the other. The thing is, you can’t say that. There’s not one way of eating that’s going to ultimately prevent cancer. Of all things out there, following WCRF’s recommendations is going to give you the best chance of not getting cancer. The problem with trendy diets is that they often lack scientific evidence and it’s very much based on buzzwords and influencers online over-simplifying the science. For relevant insight and tips, listen to War On Cancer’s podcast episode about what to eat during and after cancer with Dr. David Heber!
The reason behind why the low carbohydrate, high fat diet, ketogenic diet has been reported to help reduce the instance of cancer and help with the survival of cancer is that it allows the body to use other fuels besides glucose since these diets essentially eliminate all glucose from the body. This is based on the notion that cancer cells need glucose to survive. Therefore, if you starve yourself of glucose, your cancer growth is going to be reduced or eliminated.
However, the science doesn’t work like that and it’s oversimplifying the problem. We know that your healthy cells also need glucose, and we also get glucose from eating not just sugar but all carbohydrates. All carbohydrates essentially break down to glucose so you can’t preferentially starve your cancer cells of glucose because you’d essentially starve all your healthy cells as well. And, your healthy cells are going to need the energy to help fight the cancer.
Moreover, these types of diets are very restrictive and mean cutting out major food groups, especially diets like the ketogenic diet where you’re not going to be consuming much in the way of plant-based foods, which is a key element in getting the nutrients you need to have enough energy and stay healthy.
So, that sugar directly leads to cancer is a myth. Here’s a War On Cancer podcast episode about sugar and cancer, featuring Melissa Mogor, Public Health Adviser at WCRF. Or, to learn more specifically about cancer and sugar, check out this input that Nicole Giller, an Oncology Registered Dietitian in the US, shared with us.
Will only eating organic foods prevent cancer?
This is probably one that has been flying around the internet for quite a few years now. There’s a lot of marketing out there about organic and it’s also become a buzzword, a bit like “superfood.”
First off, just because a food is organic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more nutritious. Studies have actually compared organic or non-organic fruits and vegetables and have found the nutritional composition to be fairly similar if not the same. If it’s organic, it means it’s free from any genetically modified ingredients, any fertilizers, and any growth hormones or other hormones. Currently, there’s no strong conclusive evidence that only eating organic will protect against cancer compared to foods that are grown conventionally. If you’re living in the UK or Sweden, for example, there are regulations that keep pesticides within a safe limit for consumption.
However, for the extra cost buying organic food has, there isn’t a nutritional benefit and there’s no clear evidence that following an organic diet means you’ll be less likely to get cancer. The evidence is simply not there at all.
The most important thing for people to focus on is actually getting more fruits and vegetables, more fiber-rich foods such as wholegrains, brown rice, whole grain bread, and pulses such as peas and lentils, rather than worrying about whether it’s organic or not. It’s important to focus on the basics of a healthy diet and lifestyle, and skip the extra worry about whether it’s organic or not, since it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things.
Want to learn more? Read about organic foods and cancer here.
What about supplements? Can I replace food with supplements only when everything tastes bad because of cancer?
Technically, you could supplement all your food through supplements. Would you want to do that? Absolutely not. Would that be nutritious? Absolutely not.
However, there are some situations where supplements can be a helpful add-on to your food intake when you’re experiencing cancer.
For example, if you’ve had bowel cancer, you might have had part of your intestine removed, so your body’s ability to absorb nutrients is going to be reduced. In those situations, taking a supplement is recommended. Another supplement that is often recommended is vitamin D. We know that vitamin D is really important in the healthy functioning of your immune system. In the UK and many other northern areas, the body can only naturally absorb the amount of vitamin D we need during March-September because the body makes 90% of the vitamin D it needs through sunlight. So, if you’re not getting enough sunlight exposure, that’s going to be a problem. In those situations, a supplement is good for you. Or, you can get vitamin D through food sources such as oily fish, egg yoke, liver, and other fortified foods.
Another instance of the benefit of supplements is if you’re struggling before, during or after cancer treatment and you need more intensive food support. In this case, dieticians can prescribe nutritional supplements or give you lots of tips around food fortification and increasing your calories and your proteins from the food that you’re eating. Depending on if you’re having something changed or something blocking the food tube in your gastrointestinal system, a dietitian can also help boost your nutrition through a tube feed. There are a variety of ways to support your body to make sure that you are in your best nutritional state to cope.
In general, WCRF recommends trying to get all the nutrition you need by eating healthy foods because you don’t get the same benefits from supplements as you do from eating a balanced diet. For example, supplements don’t contain fiber which is key for bowel health and stabilizing your weight. In addition, there’s some evidence that shows that high dose single supplements, such as beta-carotene which is a kind of vitamin A, can actually be harmful and can increase the risk of certain cancers. According to research, smokers who take a beta carotene vitamin A supplement, the instance of lung cancer significantly increases.
Fun-fact, the pigment in the different colored fruits and vegetables because it’s the pigment of the different fruits and vegetables that actually provide a lot of additional nutrients that you would never find in supplements.
Optimizing your taste palate during cancer treatment
Taste disturbances are quite common for people going through cancer, and it very much depends on the type of treatment you’ve had. Taste disturbances occur in about 50% of people and can range from food tasting metallic to it tasting really bland. So, people lose interest in eating. When we don’t enjoy the food, we’re less likely to want to eat, which means we’re not getting the nutrients we need to strengthen us throughout and after cancer. So how can you optimize your taste palate and enjoy your food with cancer during the holiday season?
Spice it up – try eating stronger foods
Some people find it helpful to up go up a curry notch in their food when they experience cancer because they start enjoying really strong flavors, spices, and lots of garlic. These flavors can help food taste more if you’re struggling to taste anything.
Go over the top with the flavoring, adding things like lemon juice, spices. Not sure where to start? Here are some recipes from WCRF that have been created with Ryan Riley, chef and founder of Life Kitchen and specifically adapted for when you’re experiencing cancer. The recipes are designed to enhance the flavor of the dishes so that your food tastes good during your cancer. And yes, and all of the dishes are nutritionally complete.
Try new foods that you thought you didn’t like or that you’ve never tried before
Perhaps the most important thing when discovering how to enjoy food while experiencing cancer is to be curious about what it is you like and don’t like, and being open to those changing. This is because taste changes can be transient, and sometimes more permanent. Look at things in a curious fashion, try things that you might not normally eat or know you haven’t enjoyed – do you like it now?
A tip is that if you really enjoyed a meal before cancer and then you eat it and don’t enjoy it, try not to eat it again so that you can keep the good experience of the food. Come back to it at some point after you’ve noticed a change in taste again and see if it’s changed.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your cravings after specific tastes may change as well. For example, you may favor sweet things all the time. That’s okay, these diet changes are short term just to get you through and make sure you’re meeting your nutritional needs. Being able to be flexible and give yourself permission to eat sweet things might be what you need. Don’t feel the pressure of following a strict diet based on everything that you should be eating but are struggling with. Many people feel nauseous or sick during cancer, and it’s completely normal to not want to eat as many fruits and vegetables as you might have normally wanted to. So, showing yourself some grace is sometimes the best thing you can do to help yourself.
It’s important to note that none of the aforementioned tips on food and cancer are sure-fire ways to prevent cancer or cure it, nor will it guarantee enjoying your food again. But we hope these tips ease the process and make sure you get the energy and joy that food can bring to fuel you during cancer and at Christmas.
The information shared does not constitute a medical consultation and is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your doctor or other qualified health providers for questions regarding a medical condition, especially during the active period of Corona / Covid19. Please do not disregard professional health provider advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here. In the event of a medical emergency, call a doctor, 112 or 911 immediately.