How Nutrition Plays a Part in Cancer Care

— BY Condition Information | Reading Time: 2 min

Affectionate mom struggling against cancer hugging daughter in kitchen apron

Anywhere you look on the internet, you’ll find a ton of misinformation regarding nutrition and cancer care. While some falsely claim that a diet of rare mythical fruits can miraculously cure cancer, others state that data-backed nutritional changes can’t make any difference in your outcomes with the disease. Fortunately, research has conclusively proven that the second claim is totally false.

Nutrition will always be a cornerstone of cancer treatment. Nutritional changes play a significant role in not only your outcomes with the disease but also your quality of life, both while undergoing cancer care as well as once treatment is completed. Here’s what you need to know about how your diet can influence your cancer journey, with actionable steps for beneficial nutritional changes.

Can Nutritional Changes Impact Cancer Care?

Researchers have spent decades analyzing how different food groups impact cancer care, from preventing the onset of certain cancer types to mitigating the symptoms of specific cancer treatments. We’ve discovered nutrition grounded in the regular intake of fruit and vegetables — particularly broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbages, and garlic — plays a protective role in cancer care.

However, it’s not just adherence to a healthy diet that incurs positive effects. Individual nutrients found within certain foods are what benefit cancer care. An uptick in foods rich in antioxidants, folic acid, selenium, and vitamins like B-12 and D helps reduce the risk of breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer proliferation up to 70% to limit the rapid reproduction of harmful cancer cells.

Existing cancer symptoms and side effects can also be influenced by nutritional changes to your protocol. For example, many patients experience cancer cachexia or cancer-related weight loss from an advanced stage of the disease or while undergoing treatment. Certain nutritional interventions, such as higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids, can not only slow down weight loss but even completely prevent it in the first place.

What Are Beneficial Nutritional Approaches?

When it comes to nutrition for cancer care, many oncologists look to the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is primarily plant-based, with a focus on fresh produce, whole grains, and olive oil and cold water fish as the main sources of healthy fat. This is in stark contrast to the standard American diet (SAD), which has a very high carbohydrate and meat intake with minimal fiber.

Several clinical trials show that patients who consume a standard American diet have a drastically different quality of life during and after cancer treatment than those who follow a Mediterranean diet. In fact, researchers have found a 17% and 12% decreased cancer mortality rate in men and women who adhere to the Mediterranean diet, which is key to those working towards remission.

It’s important to note that nutrition protocols vary from patient to patient. Nutritional care must be personalized to the type and stage of cancer, the type of cancer treatments, and the side effects the patient is experiencing. At Neurvana Naturopathic Medicine, cancer protocols are designed to help prevent some of those side effects as well as consider the patient’s personal preferences.

What’s So Special About the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean and plant-based style of eating drastically improves most patients’ quality of life throughout treatment and also improves their chances of getting into long-term remission. But what’s so special about the Mediterranean diet? Put simply, many Mediterranean foods — namely fruit, vegetables, olive oil, and certain fresh fish — include nutrients that inhibit cancer growth.

The Mediterranean diet includes nutrients that have been scientifically proven to help:

  • Reduce tumor cell growth and development to limit the spread of the disease
  • Enable chemoprotective effects to limit side effects from cancer treatment 
  • Increase anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects for better quality of life
  • Regulate cancer-prone mediators like hormones or growth factors
  • Improve the production of healthy bacteria in the gut microbiome

There are various Mediterranean-based nutritional changes that can be targeted to a patient’s specific protocol. The question is, how do we build a healthy diet that can not only deal with side effects as they occur but maintain a positive quality of life throughout treatment so we won’t have to begin more aggressive interventions later on if those side effects become prominent?

Let me fill you in on the secret…

How to Make Your Diet More Mediterranean

Nutritional care can be targeted to the specific quality of life issues that patients are dealing with, but more importantly, can often prevent those side effects from occurring in the first place. Simple, cost-effective nutritional interventions I recommend patients implement at home to really change their outcomes and how they’re going to be feeling throughout cancer treatment include:

Eat more fresh produce. Fruits, vegetables, and legumes are rich in nutrients like antioxidants that cannot be found in processed foods like salty or sugary snacks. Avoid artificial preservatives and flavor enhancers in food and opt for fresh produce instead.

Consume less red meat. Oncologists recommend no more than 12 to 18 oz. of cooked red meat per week. Substitute smoked, preserved, and salted meats for cold water fish and shellfish, and turn to beans and whole grains like brown rice for protein and fiber.

Focus on healthy fats. Stock up on extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) as a Mediterranean-style source of healthy fat, and consume a moderate amount of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acid per week. A moderate amount of cheese and yogurt is also beneficial.

Happy mother cancer patient and daughter cooking at modern kitchen

Should You Ditch Your Current Nutritional Care?

Let’s be real: Everybody likes certain unhealthy foods. If you don’t like them, you’re probably a robot! Though there’s a myth that you need to eat healthy 100% of the time to adhere to your cancer care, research suggests you don’t need to be perfect. The truth is, shifting towards a healthy diet a majority of the time rather than never at all is where you’ll gain your nutritional benefits.

My general rule of thumb is something I call the 80/20 rule.

I advise my patients to eat the foods they know are healthy 80% of the time and allow themselves their favorite cheat foods 20% of the time. Have a handful of chips or sugary candies. It’s okay to indulge here or there, so long as they’re not staples in your diet — they’re just an occasional treat. In other words, don’t be afraid to have a bit of leeway in your nutritional care!

Need a new diet?

Nutrition plays an essential role in cancer care and remission. Visit our Calgary naturopathic clinic for help designing an effective nutritional intervention for your cancer journey.