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Dietary approaches in cancer

Dietary approaches in cancer

30 January 2020

Vegan, paleo, keto, low carb, mediterranean, intermittent fasting..... 

There are so many buzz words when it comes to diet these days, and most people are left confused and frustrated, not knowing what to put into their bodies. Particulary when managing or preventing cancer, diet and nutrition are incredibly important. Unfortunately, "dietary trends" don't take into account the individual needs of a person, their health status, and physical and emotional coping abilities. And certainly, a diet that worked for one person, may not work for another. 

So which dietary approach is best when you have cancer?

This is where we can help.

Let's start with some definitions to set the scene.

* Many of these approaches may come up as relevant in search engines, however this does not mean they are validated as helpful and safe in individual oncology situations. You should always be working with a qualified practitioner to assess suitability and safety of any dietary approach in cancer before making any dietary changes. 

Veganism - this is the complete avoidance of all animal products, including meat, dairy, seafood, eggs and even honey. It involves consuming only plant foods, and ideally that means lots of fresh and colourful whole veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds and legumes. Veganism is the fastest growing dietary trend at the moment, and there is certainly compelling evidence for the reduction of risk factors for heart disease and many other conditions. Unfortunately being a "good vegan" is quite tough, and you need to know what you are doing to ensure you are getting good amounts of protein, fats and micronutrients each day. Relying on toast and baked beans just ain't gonna cut it!

Paleo - based on the idea that our paleolithic ancestors relied entirely on hunting and gathering prior to the assistance of agriculture and food processing methods. This diet is made up exclusively of only natural, unprocessed wholefoods including fruit and veg, roots, nuts, meats, fish etc. It completely excludes any grains (whole or refined), legumes, processed foods and dairy. This sounds logical in theory, however cutting out an entire foodgroup has it's own downfalls. Furthermore, it isn't appropriate in all cases, and we are finding that many paleo-followers are consuming disproportionately high amounts of meat and animal fat, which is not ideal.

Keto - this is a high fat, moderate protein and very low carb approach, completely cutting out all carbohydrate-rich foods including all grains, legumes, starchy vegetables and even fruit. This causes is a switch of energy systems in the body: instead of using glucose, the body will use fatty acids, creating ketone bodies for energy. Popular for rapid weight loss, there is considerable evidence accumulating as to the benefit for other clinical applications, including various neurodegenerative diseases and some types of cancer. It's benefits are being attributed (among others) to the metabolic changes that occur when blood glucose, and therefore insulin levels are suppressed, initiating cell healing and repair processes in the body. In oncology terms, it gives rise to the idea of "starving your cancer'. However, it does not suit all cancer types and must be done with caution and supervision. It is very difficult to follow and sustain, and must absolutely be done in safe way, without the over-consumption of pro-inflammatory animal products and fats. 

Low carb - limiting carbohydrates overall also results in lower blood glucose levels, improved insulin resistance, reduced inflammation and overall a more favourable metabolic profile. It is very useful particularly because many of us are consuming a high amount of refined carbohydrates. "Low carb" doesn't necessarily mean keto, you can still consume various types of whole, low GI carbohydrates such as brown and wild rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, legumes and starchy vegetables. This approach is easier to follow, doesn't exclude whole food groups, and still has the metabolic benefits associated with minimising refined grains, processed foods and sugar.

Meditarranean diet - this diet is often associated with long term health, and the research indeed shows lowered levels of inflammation and associated disease. It includes plenty of fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruit, seafood, and healthy oils such as extra virgin olive oil. Originating in the meditarranean areas like Italy, it certainly doesn't mean you should have large bowls of steaming pasta every night. It involves finding the right balance to suit your lifestyle and metabolism. 

Intermittent Fasting (IF) - another buzz word associated with weight loss (why is it weight loss that always gains the most media attention, rather than health gain?!). There are various models of IF, including fasting for 16 hours in every 24 hour period, or fasting for 2 days of every 7 day week. The research is very compelling, with various beneficial metabolic changes being initiated with this approach. There are however also downfalls and challenges to this, and it does not suit every body type, so should not be taken too lightly. 

Complete fasting - completely abstaining from food for a period of time has also come up in Oncology care, however this has very limited application, and if so then certainly only for very short periods of time and during very specific stages of your treatment. It has various serious risks including excess weight loss, micronutrient deficiency and slowing down your metabolism, so it should only be done under strict supervision. It's not as easy as "starving" your cancer, as we need to remember the importance of nourishing our healthy cells first and foremost to prevent muscle wasting, support the immune system, and ensure healing.

Are you confused yet?

With all of these varying approaches of diets for cancer, the gist is this: one size does NOT fit all. Depending on your cancer type, where you are at in terms of treatment, and how you and your body are coping, it is very important to tailor an approach that works for you. Whilst we want the best clinical outcome, we also need to ensure that dietary changes are realistic, sustainable and enjoyable. It does not need to be perfect, but you want to overall NOURISH your body in a sensible and positive way. Small steps in the right direction are often the key to implementing long term change.

The reality is, many of us are overfed and undernourished, so we should all educate ourselves on how to treat our bodies better. Come talk to our Nutritionist Viv regarding which approach is most appropriate for you.

About the Author: Vivian Klaver

Viv is our resident Nutritionist, specialising in all things food as medicine. Nutrition can impact the biochemical processes and pathways in your body, and is incredibly important when managing health and disease.

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