The Integral Role of Nutrition in Cancer Treatment

– Following up on last week’s “The future of cancer treatment” series, this week we take a look at some of the best current treatment options…

Nutrition in Cancer Care

Healthy eating habits are important during cancer treatment. Nutrition therapy is used to help cancer patients get the nutrients they need to keep up their body weight and strength, keep body tissue healthy, and fight infection. Eating habits that are good for cancer patients can be very different from the usual healthy eating guidelines.

Healthy eating habits and good nutrition can help patients deal with the effects of cancer and its treatment. Some cancer treatments work better when the patient is well nourished and gets enough calories and protein in the diet. Patients who are well nourished may have a better prognosis (chance of recovery) and quality of life.

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Dr. Stegall’s comments: Nutrition is a very underappreciated aspect of cancer treatment. Many cancer patients in my office have been told by their conventional oncologist that nutrition doesn’t matter. “Eat whatever you want,” they say. Many chemotherapy infusion offices are stocked with candy as a “reward” for receiving chemotherapy. Sadly, these doctor who encourage poor nutrition are often the same ones who pride themselves on evidence-based medicine. And the evidence is clear regarding nutrition being a valuable part of cancer treatment.

In integrative oncology, we recognize that nutrition is of paramount importance. However, in contrast to those who practice natural/alternative cancer treatment, we do not believe that nutrition by itself is enough. While there are certainly cases where patients had positive outcomes with nutrition alone, these cases are a very small minority and I do not recommend that nutrition be the only focus. But it should certainly be part of the focus!

Cruciferous Vegetables and Cancer Prevention

Is there evidence that cruciferous vegetables can help reduce cancer risk in people? Researchers have investigated possible associations between intake of cruciferous vegetables and the risk of cancer. Cruciferous vegetables are rich in nutrients, including several carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin); vitamins C, E, and K; folate; and minerals. During food preparation, chewing, and digestion, the glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables are broken down to form biologically active compounds such as indoles, nitriles, thiocyanates, and isothiocyanates (1). Indole-3-carbinol (an indole) and sulforaphane (an isothiocyanate) have been most frequently examined for their anticancer effects.

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Dr. Stegall’s comments: A focus on vegetables – organic of course – is essential for the treatment of cancer. We advise patients to “eat a rainbow” by focusing on as many different colored vegetables as possible, because this provides for a wide variety of nutrients and anti-oxidants. Blending or juicing vegetables can also be helpful, although I do not feel that multiple juices per day are necessary.

Nutrition and cancer: A review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet

It has been estimated that 30–40 percent of all cancers can be prevented by lifestyle and dietary measures alone. Obesity, nutrient sparse foods such as concentrated sugars and refined flour products that contribute to impaired glucose metabolism (which leads to diabetes), low fiber intake, consumption of red meat, and imbalance of omega 3 and omega 6 fats all contribute to excess cancer risk.

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Dr. Stegall’s comments: The evidence in this study regarding the importance of nutrition is quite impressive. Preventing 30-40% of all cancers through better nutrition would save thousands of lives a year. It is amazing how little attention this receives when we discuss prevention. Whether we are treating cancer or trying to prevent it, good nutrition is essential.

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