An Ounce of Prevention

A healthy diet can reduce cancer risk, ease cancer care.

Something to keep track of the next time you make your weekly run to the grocery store is how much time you spend shopping in the middle aisles of the store and how much time you spend shopping out on the perimeter aisles of the store.

If you find yourself spending most of your time out on those perimeter aisles, you’re shopping right. You are, at least, if your goal is to eat healthy and decrease your chances of developing chronic ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

Yes, what you eat can actually increase or decrease your chances of developing cancer. So says the National Foundation for Cancer Research, which has determined that up to 40 percent of cancer patients could have prevented their cancer simply by eating healthier.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that there are some basic rules regarding diet and nutrition that we can apply that are very helpful in terms of helping us to prevent cancer,” confirms Vikas Malhotra, MD, of Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute.

“The first rule of good nutrition is that anything that comes naturally is good. And by naturally, we mean anything that does not come in a package or in a processed form. In other words, just about anything you find on the outskirts of the grocery store.

“We’re talking about fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats such as chicken or fish and some red meats and whole grains. A plant-based diet such as that is ideal for reducing cancer risk, and the closest thing we know of that comes to that is the Mediterranean diet.”

The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional eating habits of people from countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece, where it has long been customary to eat in accordance with what is provided naturally and seasonally by land and sea.

It is a diet characterized by a high consumption of fruits, vegetables and olive oil and a moderate consumption of proteins. Dr. Malhotra points out, though, that even when following the basics of this or any other diet regimen, portion control is always important.

“Yes, we still have to watch calories and not indulge in them,” he says. “Bread and olive oil are good for you, but a loaf of bread and a pint of olive oil defeats the purpose. So, portion control is one of the keys to helping reduce cancer risk, no matter the diet plan.”

Studies Show

To further drive home the point of how a healthy diet can reduce a person’s chances of developing certain cancers, Dr. Malhotra cites a number of studies which strongly suggest that failing to eat healthy can have the opposite effect and actually increase cancer risk.

“This has been looked at across a spectrum of cancers, and we know, for example, that if you have a lot of saturated fat in your diet, your risk of developing breast cancer is much higher, regardless of ethnicity or background,” the doctor says.

“For example, you can take women from Asia or India, where we’ve had very low breast cancer rates, and put them on a standard American diet with lots of processed foods, and in twenty-five to thirty years, their risk will rise to the same level as that of their peers.

“The first rule of good nutrition is that anything that comes naturally is good… In other words, just about anything you find on the outskirts of the grocery store.” – Vikas Malhotra, MD

“Now genetics drive breast cancer a lot, too. We don’t deny that. But a low-fat diet certainly has a very beneficial effect on the development of not just breast cancer but colorectal cancer as well.

“There’s a recent study, in fact, that shows that one of the main causes of a recent epidemic of colorectal cancer in young Americans – and we’re talking about thirty- and forty-year-olds – was exactly that, diet and lifestyle.

“So that’s why we say that, in general, it is certainly best to stay on the periphery in the grocery store when shopping for yourself, and do your best to avoid anything that generally comes in a packet or is processed.

“Of course, it’s silly to say, Don’t ever eat anything processed. Everyone wants some potato chips now and then or a cookie or a cracker. And that’s fine. But minimize it, because the best rule is that the less of that you have, the better it is for you.”

Healthy choices can indeed lead to healthier lives, but the role of diet in the fight against cancer does not end there. As Dr. Malhotra points out, nutrition can also have an impact on a person’s ability to successfully cope with and beat cancer.

Eat by the Rules

“What we say in that regard is that during treatment, easy-to-digest foods are preferred,” Dr. Malhotra explains. “And during treatments, there are some cardinal rules we follow, and these rules apply to all cancers.

“The first rule is that instead of eating three big meals a day, eat six small meals. The reason we say that is digestive systems slow down during cancer treatment. Your juices aren’t flowing normally, so your gut is not working as promptly as it normally does.

“That’s why some people get nausea during their treatments. It’s in part because food tends to stay in the stomach longer, so we suggest eating half your meal and saving the other half for a snack and have it a few hours later.

“Rule number two is: Drink lots of fluids. And I cannot emphasize that enough. Fluids change the entire chemistry of the body and enable it to get rid of toxins easier, which allows the body to mount a better response to treatment, which makes you feel better.

“And rule number three is: Some comfort foods are okay. There are some reasonably healthy comfort foods such as peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese and smoothies that we don’t mind you having because the sense of taste is often lost during treatment.

“For that reason and the fact that some people get a lot of nausea during treatment and just don’t feel well, we’re less restrictive at that time. We’re a little more liberal, even though we still want you to be smart about your choices.

“And one way to do that is to make use of dietary supplements. Something like Ensure® or BOOST® can provide a lot of really good nutrition in just eight or ten ounces, so that is sometimes an option for people as well.

“The interesting thing is that every person fighting cancer is unique. What works for one may not work for another, but there are plenty of options, and figuring that out along with your caregiver or nurse can make the fight a lot easier for you.”

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