By Karen Crutchlow
Food has increasingly become a serious subject. Over the past decade the topic of food has increased book sales and is projected into our living rooms on a weekly basis with popular reality TV shows that capture our attention and imagination in the kitchen. It is also an important topic of conversation among many who are health conscious or trying to manage serious health conditions.
As a source of nutrition, food has played an integral role in the health of individuals and communities since the dawn of time, being no less important today than it was thousands of years ago. For many around the world, food is also entwined with culture. Certain foods and the way it is prepared is symbolic of particular rituals and celebrations; bound up with beliefs, laws, practices and cultures. Some religions pay specific attention to certain foods which are central to particular spiritual practices, strengthening religious communities. It’s not surprising that food and eating together in community often feature in the pages of Holy books.
I’ve written before about my relationship with food in the years prior to my diagnosis of breast cancer. In a nutshell I saw food as a practical necessity – nothing more. I was far too busy to spend time preparing foods and so, whilst I did prepare foods from scratch for my growing family, they were high in carbohydrates and pretty low in nutrients; macaroni cheese, spaghetti bolognaise, pizza dishes etc. would fill everybody up but not necessarily nurture them nutritionally – I hadn’t been doing myself or my family any favours! My diagnosis of cancer early in 2006 caused me to ask the question, “Are we what we eat?”
We’ve all heard it before, “We are what we eat…” but, can we confidently say that food makes a noticeable difference to our health? It seems so! The heart foundation, diabetes societies and government data collection sites for cancer etc. from around the world, cite poor diet as a player in the development & exacerbation of such conditions. Despite this, advice and information regarding diet is still thin on the ground, particularly from oncology specialists. Food really can make a difference! It takes time to repair our bodies though which is why, if we are going to include nutrition as a support to our healing, we must look at it as an ongoing commitment. What we eat today contributes towards the cells of our tomorrow.
When I started researching beneficial nutritional approaches to cancer a myriad of anti-cancer diets come up – some of which are listed as follows:
- The Budwig Diet
- The Kelly Diet
- The NORI Protocol
- The Alkaline/Acid Diet
- The Gerson Therapy
- The Cancer Ketogenic Diet
Broadly speaking, all these approaches aim to affect mechanisms that cancer cells use. Some are designed to minimise the ‘fuel’ cancer cells require to maintain their vibrancy and slow down proliferation; some enhance healthy tissue around tumours to contain cells, most approaches reduce inflammation in the body. All these approaches report benefits to the immune and digestive system and consequently the health of our hormone systems. Anecdotal evidence certainly supports the success of these nutritional approaches for many, but not all.
Over the years I have utilised all these approaches at some time or another…always for a minimum of three months and in some cases for as long as fourteen months (one approach at a time!) With the exception of the NORI protocol and the Cancer Ketogenic Diet, all these approaches had very clear benefits for me and had a marked effect upon how well I felt, the management of my disease and my energy levels. However many of them (with the exception of the acid/alkaline approach) required diligence and tremendous self-discipline. Dietary approaches such as those listed require strict adherence to their specific protocols and can be incredibly time consuming to prepare. Whilst I was amazingly well physically when using these dietary approaches, they took their toll on my social enjoyment of eating in company and preparing meals for my family. Fear around the consequences of ‘cheating’ whilst using these approaches held me to their rigid protocols in tightly controlling their nutritional approaches to managing my health. I was physically well…but miserable! The emotional stress I experienced was very real.
Today, thirteen years post diagnosis, I’m more relaxed about my nutritional approach to cancer, despite being classified as ‘palliative.’ The common factor amongst the diets listed above are that they are all plant based, wholefood approaches and because of this, generally follow the 80:20 Alkaline/Acid ratio. I realised that a vegetarian approach, with much reduced consumption of dairy foods, covered many of the key tenets of these diets and, in addition, affected the angiogenic mechanisms of tumours (development of their own blood vessels). As a ‘verging on vegan’ vegetarian I follow the principles of eating seasonal ‘raw’ foods in the summer and warming foods during winter months…this traditional approach makes sense to me and was so freeing after the rigid applications of the approaches I’d utilised previously.
Each of us respond differently to foods. Because of this it is important that we take responsibility for understanding how foods affect us; the foods we tolerate and the habits we have around food. For us to use nutrition in a useful way we need to:
1. Develop your own food awareness
- physical responses (moods, lethargy/energy, headaches …)
- food allergies (these promote inflammation which in turn aggravates cancer)
2. Set initial boundaries around
- foods to avoid (this will ensure we enjoy the foods in our diet)
- foods to include (this will cater for the needs of our body and can be used as a therapeutic tool – much like we use any oncology approach )
3. Understand our needs in relation to the diagnosis we have
It is important to understand the relationship between food and our diagnosis. For example, if your cancer diagnosis is prostate, testicular, breast, ovarian or uterine there is every chance that the sex hormones have an impact on the cancer cells. Consuming dairy and meat can add to the burden of an already overloaded hormone system. It is known that any dairy product derived from milk is going to contain trace amounts of oestrogen which is why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Australia, New Zealand and the European Union do not permit the additional use of hormones to promote milk production. There is still controversy regarding any negative impact that dairy products may have on hormone driven cancers. A recent study (2017) has linked
specific dairy foods to a higher risk of breast cancer ¹ raising potential concern. I choose to avoid dairy whilst I have active cancer because I prefer to be cautious whilst studies are still flagging some concern.
One of the reasons I choose to enjoy a plant based diet is the benefit that a diet high in fibre has. Studies have shown that fibre is beneficial in flushing out excess hormones improving the prognosis of those with breast cancer.² In addition, a review of studies concluded that there seems to be links between better survival after breast cancer by ‘eating foods containing fibre’, ‘eating foods containing soy’ and ‘a lower intake of total fat and in particular, saturated fat.’ ³ All good reasons to consciously understand and feel confident about how and why I choose to eat the foods I do.
Finally, understanding that the digestion of our food is critical to the functioning of our body is an important consideration to experiencing peace in what we eat. The way our body responds to food is a vital consideration in healing. The four key areas I base my nutritional approach on are:
1. Reduce/eliminate sugar, meat, dairy & refined foods
2. Increase vegetable & fruit intake
3. Eat organic foods (grown in nutrient dense soils) where possible
4. Maintain good hydration by drinking filtered water
Food is meant to nurture and sustain us physically and emotionally. There are very few things that are more enjoyable for me than preparing a tasty meal and sharing it with family or friends. Today I can enjoy the process of preparing and sharing a meal without feeling overwhelmed, fearful and mistrusting of the foods I am eating. Knowledge and understanding how I relate and respond to the foods I need enable me to recognise and feel confident about the benefits of a ‘verging on vegan’ vegetarian approach to managing my health and maintaining wellness.
With that has come peace with what I eat.
1. Susan E McCann, Justine Hays, Charlotte W Baumgart, Edward H Weiss, Song Yao, Christine B Ambrosone, Usual Consumption of Specific Dairy Foods Is Associated with Breast Cancer in the Roswell Park Cancer Institute Data Bank and BioRepository, Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 1, Issue 3, March 2017, e000422, https://doi.org/10.3945/cdn.117.000422
2. Gold EB, Pierce JP, Natarajan L, et al. Dietary pattern influences breast cancer prognosis in women without hot flashes: the women’s healthy eating and living trial. J Clin Oncol. 2009;27(3):352–359. doi:10.1200/JCO.2008.16.1067 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2645853/
3. World Cancer Research Fund International/American Institute for Cancer Research Continuous Update Project Report: Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Breast Cancer Survivors. 2014. Available at: www.wcrf.org/sites/default/files/Breast-Cancer-Survivors-2014-Report.pdf