Given I am studying nutrition, diet is pretty important to me! I was already a healthy eater when I got my diagnosis, but I have taken this to another level since. Whilst I am clearly at one end of a spectrum here, I want to share the focus and fundamentals of my diet, as they apply to anyone wanting to eat well and nourish their body!
I do want to say upfront that there is no proven diet to either prevent or cure cancer. However, there is plenty of research showing that certain foods do increase the risk of some cancers, or cause damage to the body in some way, while other foods support the body, by improving immunity or reducing inflammation for example, and these are the facts that my diet is based on.
There is some extremely interesting research emerging about the ketogenic diet, which early studies suggest could be highly effective at helping reduce cancer. However, trials have so far been small, and far wider research is needed for conclusive proof. The ketogenic diet is when you starve the body of glucose (the body’s primary energy source) so it has to use protein for energy (a state called ketosis). The theory behind it helping with cancer is that as it is believed cancer cells need glucose specifically (and use a lot of it as they are very inefficient at turning it to energy, as well as being fast growing), so on a ketogenic diet they have no energy source. There are however, various issues with the diet and a question around its safety if followed long term. I’m not going to detail these here, but will just note that I don’t follow the ketogenic diet currently as I have lost a fair bit of weight since diagnosis, so I need to get plenty of calories in, and given that I don’t eat meat or dairy, I would find a ketogenic diet (essentially no sugar/ carbs) very difficult.
My attitude to food is everything in moderation. Before my diagnosis, this is the diet I followed around 80% of the time, and the other 20% I ate stuff that was, whilst maybe not as good for my body, enjoyable and good for my happiness/mental health! Yes I do love a glass of champagne, or an indulgent dessert as much as the next person! I don’t believe in banning any foods, as restriction is hard, boring and almost impossible to maintain for the long term. Instead I think you should focus on all the good things to get into your diet. If you focus on what you CAN eat, the other stuff just won’t seem as important. So here are my top tips on what to fill your body with to nourish it and stay healthy.
The focus of my diet is unrefined, wholefoods, with loads of plants. I eat seasonal and organic as much as possible to ensure freshness and maximum nutrients (with the ethical and environmental positives a bonus). I don’t eat meat (I stopped eating it after my original colon operation), as feel better without it, and I minimise anything processed or refined (especially sugar), and dairy. So the below is what makes up the vast majority of my diet, and I believe should be the majority of everyone’s diet, regardless of your health!
1. Vegetables and fruit
We all know vegetables and fruit contain vitamins and minerals. These are compounds that the body cannot make itself, but that are required for it to function properly. On top of this, plants also contain phytonutrients. Whilst similar in someways to vitamins, phytonutrients aren’t necessary for our bodies to function, but they are very beneficial! Different vegetables and fruit contain different nutrients, and nature is extremely clever, as the different colours of produce are often reflective of these. This is why it is often said you should eat the rainbow; by consuming a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables you will ensure you get a wide range of nutrients.
I aim for ten portions a day (a portion is around a handful), with the majority being vegetables, as its important to be mindful of the sugar content of fruit. Whilst this sounds a lot, if you get into the habit, its very achievable. A typical day for me includes:
- a mixed vegetable and fruit juice or smoothie with breakfast (I make the night before so I’m not faffing around in the morning). This gives me two to three potions
- porridge/ granola/ overnight oats with mixed berries or other fruit
- soup or a filling salad (eg with lentils/rice/grains) to give at least two or three portions of vegetables at lunch
- dinner will include at least three vegetables, whether they be in a stir fry, curry, pasta dish or alongside fish for example
- at least one fruit or vegetable based snack.
Try to eat the freshest produce you can, as nutrients are depleted over time. The best way to do this is by focusing on local/ seasonal produce. Frozen is also a great option as produce is frozen so soon after picking that nutrients are well preserved. Avoid produce that is cooked before freezing though as this will have depleted the nutrient content.
- Personally I eat organic as much as possible in order to avoid the chemicals (pesticides/ fertilisers etc) that are often heavily used for non organic produce, but I will talk more about limiting exposure to toxins in a future blog post. I know organic isn’t viable for all however.
2. Pulses, grains and other plants
- Like fruit and vegetables, other plants also contain valuable nutrients. Pulses including lentils and chickpeas, as well as unrefined grains and pseudo-grains including rice, quinoa, millet and spelt are important staples for me. They are good sources of protein and carbohydrate and make a great base for so many dishes.
3. (Lean meat), fish and eggs
- Whilst I don’t personally eat meat, in moderation, lean meat is a great source of protein and various micronutrients. When it comes to fish, I focus on oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring, sardines), although I’m also partial to seafood which has the benefit of being a great source of zinc. When it comes to animal produce I am very strict about eating only organic. Putting aside the ethical arguments, organic strictly limits the use of artificial hormones and medicines for the animals, that quite honestly I wouldn’t want in my body! Again I appreciate that organic may not be viable for all, but I strongly believe it is best to eat less, but better quality animal produce as far as possible.
4. Healthy fats
- Fat is essential for our body, but the important point is to get the right fats. We need the essential fatty acids, which are also called omega-3 and omega-6, ideally in a fairly balanced ratio. Most people get plenty of omega-6 which is found in vegetable oils, meat and most processed foods, but not much omega-3 which is found in oily fish like salmon and mackerel, as well as various seeds including linseed and hemp. Nuts, seeds, avocados and olives/ olive oil are all other great sources of healthier fat.
Did you know that around 70% of your immune system is in your gut?! You may have heard of the microbiome, which is the good bacteria that live in your gut. It is essential for immunity, nutrient absorption and general gut health. New research emerges every day about the importance of a healthy microbiome, and what you eat has a huge influence on its diversity and health. Pre/probiotics are an important part of this. Prebiotics are found in any foods with fibre; vegetables, fruits, pulses and grains for example. The wider variety you have of these, the more you’ll be supporting a diverse microbiome and research suggests these make a longer term difference than probiotics. Probiotics are most prevalent in fermented foods; natural live/cultured yogurt and kefir, kombucha (a fermented tea drink), sauerkraut, kimchi and sourdough bread are all great options. You can also buy probiotic supplements, but getting them via food is preferable over the long term. Do be careful if you are on chemotherapy/ other treatments though. With a lowered immune system, you are at higher risk of infection, so you may be advised to avoid fermented foods because of the bacteria. I am playing it safe currently, consuming small quantities of sourdough bread and taking a supplement for gut health that is not bacterial. Interestingly I’ve not had the gut side effects (diarrhoea etc) that I had in my first two rounds of chemo, since I started taking this.
So what do I minimise my intake of? (I would never say completely avoid, again, its all about moderation and I never want eating to become a miserable and stressful process!)
1. Processed foods. If you don’t recognise the ingredients, its likely your body won’t either! Processed foods are often high in salt, refined sugar and trans fats, all of which are damaging to the body in various ways. Of course they are convenient, and are designed to be addictively tasty, but processed foods shouldn’t be a staple part of anyone’s diet. Save them for occasional treats instead!
2. Refined sugar. This is something I’ve become strict on since my diagnosis, as cancer cells feed on sugar (as discussed above). However, high sugar intake is not good for anyone, with well researched links to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular issues among other problems. Be very careful switching to unrefined sugars such as maple/agave/rice syrup etc too. Whilst they are slightly better in terms of the blood sugar spike they can cause, and some even contain low levels of nutrients, they are still sugar, so consume in moderation.
3. White flour. Highly refined white wheat flour is widely used in the Western world and is of very limited nutritional value. It is high in gluten which is inflammatory, and is easily broken down to sugar, which, as I’ve mentioned above, is the fuel for cancer cells. Whilst I don’t suggest it is necessary for the average healthy person to cut out all white flour, it is an ingredient to be mindful of, particularly for anyone with any kind of inflammatory or chronic disease. Wholemeal flour is nutritionally better, although it is still a very refined and high gluten grain, so I prefer to replace with less refined alternatives such as rye or spelt flour/ bread, and substitute pasta with rice or chickpea pasta for example.
4. Dairy. Dairy is meant for growing young cows! As such it is high in hormones and insulin growth factor which MAY promote cancerous cell growth. Research is still somewhat questionable on the link between dairy and cancer, but dairy does have other issues. It contains proteins which the human body is not designed to break down (most importantly casein and lactose), and so intolerances to these are not uncommon. Like with wheat flour, I’m not suggesting everyone should cut out all dairy, but the Western diet is heavily reliant on it, and it is an ingredient to be mindful of. Try not to eat in vast quantities or with every meal. There are so many easily available and tasty alternatives to milk, yogurt and even cheese and ice-cream, its worth giving some of them a go.
5. Red and processed meat. There are proven links between these and the increased risk of certain cancers, particularly bowel cancer. Whilst red meat is a superb source of iron, the human body really does not need to eat meat every day. It would do our bodies and the planet a real benefit if we all cut down on meat consumption just a little.
Hopefully the above has given you all a little food for thought. I’ve just touched the surface of an enormous topic here, and am aware I’ve not linked to research backing up these claims. There are useful links below if you’d like to read more