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Nutrition & Cancer

by Sarah Cimperman, ND

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. A diagnosis is usually followed by difficult decisions about treatment options, but everyday issues like diet cannot be overlooked. Food can be medicine. Studies have shown that many fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes contain important cancer-fighting compounds and that a healthy diet can inhibit the development of cancer as well as its progression, metastasis and recurrence. Although individualized dietary plans designed to meet specific needs are ideal, there are some general guidelines from which all cancer patients can benefit.

A Varied Whole Foods Diet

The ideal diet for everyone, including people diagnosed with cancer, is a wide variety of fresh, seasonal and local whole foods, including fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. While most plant foods have good things to offer - like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber - scientists have discovered that some have higher levels of cancer-fighting nutrients than others. These foods include garlic, turmeric, cayenne, ginger, green tea, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, onion, tomato, turnips, seaweed, spinach, chard, kale, mustard greens, tangerines, grapes, figs, plums, blueberries, cherries, oranges and flaxseeds.

Unless digestion is compromised, a combination of raw foods and cooked foods is best. Cooked foods are easier to digest while raw foods are generally higher in nutrients. However, exceptions to this rule do exist. For example, lycopene, an antioxidant with anti-cancer properties found in tomatoes, becomes more concentrated when tomatoes are cooked. In this case, cooked and canned tomatoes can be more nutritious than raw tomatoes. On the other hand, nuts and seeds should always be consumed raw. They contain anti-inflammatory and immune modulating essential fatty acids that are very fragile and oxidize easily when exposed to heat and light. Roasting them may increase flavor, but it can also increase the production of free radicals in the body, and with them, the risk of cancerous cell mutations.

Balanced Blood Sugar

High levels of glucose, or blood sugar, occur three to eight times more often in people with active cancer. Also, compared to normal cells, cancerous cells consume up to 5 times more blood sugar. Maintaining balanced levels of glucose in the blood is not only important for slowing tumor cell proliferation, but it can sustain energy throughout the day.

The best way to attain and maintain healthy levels of blood sugar is to avoid simple carbohydrates that cause large spikes in blood sugar levels. Simple carbohydrates include processed foods, soda, sweetened beverages, pasta, bread, pastries and other foods that contain flour or sugar. But sugar should not be replaced with artificial sweeteners. They may not raise blood sugar levels but their sweet taste stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin, increasing the risk for insulin resistance, elevated blood glucose and diabetes. Also, some artificial sweeteners have been found to be potential carcinogens.

To balance blood sugar, eat five smaller meals each day instead of three larger meals. Protein and healthy fat should be a part of every meal because these nutrients slow the absorption of glucose into the blood. Healthy fats have also been found to inhibit angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels to feed tumor growth. Raw nuts and seeds and wild, cold water fish like salmon, halibut, herring, small mackerel, sardines and anchovies provide both healthy fat and high quality protein.

Organic Foods

There are several reasons to choose organic foods over non-organic foods, but cancer prevention is on top of the list. Studies have linked pesticides and herbicides in foods to many cancers, including colon, lung, breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers, as well as sarcoma, lymphoma and leukemia. Also, residue of hormones given to livestock to speed growth can act as xenoestrogens in humans, increasing the risk for hormone-related cancers, like breast, ovarian and prostate cancer. Because organic foods are grown without exposure to herbicides, pesticides or growth hormones, they reduce intake of carcinogens and lower the risk of cancer progression and recurrence.

When it’s not possible to eat organic, make informed choices about what to eat and what to avoid. After reviewing more than 100,000 laboratory tests from the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Working Group ranked fruits and vegetables based on pesticide contamination. They determined that consumers can cut their pesticide intake by almost ninety percent when they replace the most contaminated fruits and vegetables with those least contaminated.

The twelve most contaminated produce items are, in descending order, peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes. Avoid these foods if they aren’t organic. The twelve least contaminated produce items are, in ascending order, onion, avocado, frozen sweet corn, pineapple, mango, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and eggplant. Choose these foods instead.

Additional Support

They can never be a substitute for a healthy diet, but nutrients in the form of supplements, as well as certain botanical medicines, can be helpful alternative or adjunctive treatments for cancer. Nutritional and botanical supplements can strengthen the body; protect healthy cells; inhibit cancer progression, metastasis and recurrence; modulate the immune system to increase surveillance and destruction of cancerous cells; attain and maintain healthy blood counts; support the liver in its role of detoxification; stimulate appetite; improve digestion and the assimilation of nutrients; and reduce side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Like pharmaceutical medicines, natural medicines should be prescribed by a doctor knowledgeable about their actions, interactions and therapeutic dosages. She or he can customize a protocol taking into account individual needs, symptoms, type and stage of cancer. Never take supplements without the supervision of a doctor.




Dr. Sarah Cimperman is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine in private practice in New York City. For more information, call 646-234-2918 or visit www.drsarahcimperman.com.

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