Understanding nutritional needs in various cancer treatments is important in caring for the patients. You may read or have been advised by well-meaning friends and family to avoid certain food or to take supplements. However, some of the information may contradict and result in confusion.
The following are some questions that are frequently asked during our encounter with cancer patients and their caregivers. The answer to each question is intended to provide clarification and allow you to make an informed choice.
Does sugar feed cancer cells?
Carbohydrate is the main source of energy for our body, and it is the only source of energy for our brain. Carbohydrate is broken down into simple sugar in the process of digestion and sugar is the simplest nutrient to be utilised by our body cells. Various carbohydrate food that we commonly take are fruits, dairy products, rice, noodles, bread, crackers, bean products, and starchy vegetables including potatoes, corn, tapioca, and also sweetened drinks and desserts.
This means that there is no need to completely avoid sugar, however excessive sugar intake is not encouraged as sugar itself has no other nutrients besides providing the needed calories. In addition, you may like to take note that excessive intake of simple sugar could increase our blood sugar more rapidly compared to intake of complex carbohydrate. When our blood sugar level is high, our pancreas will release insulin to convert the sugar. Hyperinsulinemia or excessive production of insulin is thought to cause inflammatory responses in our body that may lead to increased risk of cancer.
Is honey a better substitute to sugar? Is honey safe to be consumed?
Honey is made up of fructose (~38%), glucose (~31%), water (~17%) and the remaining carbohydrate are maltose, sucrose as well as some complex carbohydrate. It also contains traces of vitamins and minerals, like vitamin C, iron, calcium, phosphate etc.
Honey has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It also acts as an anti-oxidant. Hence, taking honey has its benefits. However, if one is on active treatment e.g. chemotherapy, radiation therapy or undergoing stem cell transplantation, honey is not safe to be consumed as most honey is not pasteurized and it may contain pollens or even bacteria that could cause allergy or infection.
You may purchase pasteurised honey as an alternative, but you would not obtain all the honey’s goodness as all active enzymes would have been destroyed under high temperature during the pasteurization process.
Is it safe to consume red meat?
Red meat, such as beef and lamb, provides nutrients that are not found in white meat, such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12. These nutrients are important in the formation of red blood cells and haemoglobin. Tainting it once or twice a week would provide sufficient nutrients. On the other hand, if too much red meat is consumed or when it is consumed too often, or in their high fat form, its intake may increase risk of coronary illness and certain cancers.
Can I take supplements during treatment?
Many types of supplements promising various health benefits and claims are available in the market. One must exercise caution when choosing supplements. Do have a good understanding of these supplements and why they need to be consumed?
Multi-vitamins and minerals pill which consists of no more than the upper limit of RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for all their nutrients are safe to be consumed during treatment.
Antioxidant vitamins & minerals supplements, or phyto-nutrients & phyto-chemicals that act, as antioxidants are not encouraged to be consumed during treatment. There are controversies in the benefits of taking these supplements in patients undergoing cancer treatment.
Immune enhancing supplements such as amino acids, protein powders are safe to be consumed during treatment. However, do ensure that the supplements are manufactured by a reputable pharmaceutical company.
If you are consuming any other supplement, it is best to discuss with your oncologist and/or dietitian to ensure that you are getting the benefit of these supplements and not overloading your body with unnecessary pills.
Should I go for organic produces?
Plant food are considered organic if they are produced without genetic modification, no chemical fertilizers used and with restricted used of conventional pesticides. For organic livestock, no antibiotic or growth hormones are given. Organic food can be included in the diet of cancer patients but is not always necessary. Given the limited use of food preservatives, organic food may spoil faster and they may have potentially higher amounts of biotoxins due to the lack of externally applied herbicides/fungicides. Hence, when deciding to buy organic food, we need to consider the source of the organic food, it would be ideal if the organic farm that supplies the produce is nearby to ensure shortest transportation time and therefore provide optimum nutritional quality.
What is genetically modified food (GMO)?
Genetically modified food refers to food produced from organisms that have had specific changes introduced into their DNA using genetic engineering methods. These techniques allow crops to be engineered to have increased resistance to pathogens, herbicides and/or provide better nutrient profiles. There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from the genetically modified crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food.
Are there any food or diets that cause cancer?
There are many ‘anti-inflammatory’ diets and while each plan has its own twist, all are based on the general concept that constant or out-of-control inflammation in the body leads to ill health, and that eating to avoid constant inflammation promotes better health and can keep disease away.
Here are some examples of food that are thought to be inflammatory, or food preparation process that may increase cancer risks:
* Moulds & toxins: e.g. Aflatoxin in cereals, grains and peanuts and Fumonisin in maize
* Food preparation;
Is there any diet to prevent cancer recurrence?
The World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research reviewed thousands of studies and provided summary of factors that help in preventing cancer and cancer recurrence.
Some lifestyle modifications that have proven to be helpful are: