NUTRITION AND RECIPES
There is so much information about what we should eat, online, books, TV programmes and radio. Sometimes the information is contradictory, which can lead to frustration. What we eat and drink can affect our health in lots of ways. Although there are some foods that are directly linked to cancer our overall diet is more important than these individually. However, something all the advice has in common is eat lots of vegetables and don’t forget the fibre.
We often hear that a healthy and balanced diet is good for us, but it can be hard to know what this looks like.
The general recommendation is to eat a diet high in:-
- Fruit and vegetables
- Wholegrains (e.g. brown rice or wholegrain bread)
- Healthy proteins like fresh chicken, fish or pulses (e.g. lentils or beans)
And low in:-
- Processed food and red meat
- High calorie foods
- Sugary drinks
Cancer Research UK has some really helpful advice.
In brief Cancer Research UK advises:-
Eating foods high in fibre can reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Their site gives tips and simple swaps to help you eat more fibre everyday.
Healthier diets could prevent around 1 in 20 cancers.
In answer to the question “Does having a healthy diet reduce my risk of cancer?” They say…
- Yes, having a healthy and balanced diet can reduce the risk of cancer by helping you keep a healthy weight or lose weight
- This is important because obesity is a cause of 13 different types of cancer
- Having more or less of some food groups can reduce your cancer risk, but your overall diet is more important than individual foods
One book which really explains why it is advisable to eat certain food is “Anti-Cancer – A New Way of Life” by Dr David Servan-Schreiber” (I will call him David, I hope nobody will be offended at the familiarity) . In his early thirties as a young doctor the author and a couple of his young colleagues accidentally stumbled upon the fact that he had an untreatable brain tumour. David uses his research capabilities to discover what he can do to help himself stay around for longer and as you might expect most of his findings revolve around food and exercise.
David discovered that refined sugar is our enemy, really not what we want to hear when we feel we need to treat ourselves with tasty cakes, sweets and biscuits of our choice while we are going through cancer treatment! Cancer feeds on refined sugar according to the book. It could help explain why the incidences of cancer have risen so massively over the last 10 years. He describes how our genes developed in a time where one person consumed 2kg of honey a year, by 1830 human sugar consumption was up to 5kg a year but by the end of the twentieth century this had risen to 70kg per year. A German Nobel Prize winner, a biologist called Otto Heinrich Warburg discovered that metabolism of malignant tumours depends largely on glucose consumption.
However, do not be dismayed, it is possible to get through treatment or through your life with cancer without denying yourself sweet treats altogether. There are so many cookbooks with recipes using small amounts of dates, stevia, dark chocolate, agave nectar, coconut sugar etc instead of refined sugar. Click here for some recipes. If any readers have delicious cancer-UNfriendly recipes they would like to share please send them in to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many interesting charts in David’s book showing how the highest incidence of cancer seems to be in countries which have moved away from a vegetable, legume and organic grass-fed animal diet and towards processed food, sugary drinks and grain-fed factory-farmed animals.
Even more interesting in David’s book is the fact that there are many foods which cancer simply hates, such as:
Capsicums (red/green/yellow/orange peppers)
Rosemary, mint, thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram, parsley
Berries (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries)
If we can give ourselves some of these foods at each meal that would be a good start in fighting the good fight.
I asked my wonderful oncologist why nutrition and a healthy diet was not more widely espoused by cancer doctors and why some cancer hospitals seem to positively encourage the eating of cakes, biscuits and sweets while treating cancer. His reply was that there is no real scientific evidence that diet makes a difference and that they need cancer patients to avoid losing weight so they can withstand the brutality of cancer treatments like chemo / radiotherapy.
Unfortunately, as pharmaceutical companies have nothing to gain by researching diet as a solution (and everything to lose) it is unlikely that traditional medicine will be as evangelical as David in respect of the benefits of eating the right food. All I can say is that by eating the right foods and cutting out the wrong foods I felt as if I were regaining some control and not only that but It seemed to me that this was resulting in me coping much better with chemotherapy and helping my blood counts bounce back quickly after treatments. I used to juice ginger and knock back ginger shots, much harder than a tequila slammer, and I felt like this ginger was ravaging every cancer cell on its way through my body! If nothing else it made me feel optimistic and that in itself is a wonderful thing.
Almost all dietary research reveals that we should steer clear of foods which have an inflammatory impact on our system, especially our gut. Inflammation not only increases the chances of those cancer cells but also may lead to many other health problems.
Alice van der Schoot is a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr, MSc) with a background in Neuroscience (BSc) and she has kindly agreed to write articles for cancerbuddy users that we might find interesting. I think you will agree that her first 2 articles are very helpful…..
Nutrition for Sustained Energy
When we are going through a challenging time, we can start to see our energy levels and concentration dip as time goes on. Here are 8 tips to keep your energy levels up throughout the day.
To give you the boost to start the day, make sure you are prioritising eating a breakfast with complex carbohydrates and protein to fuel you through the morning. Some ideas:
Oats made with milk and topped with nuts and seeds
Muesli with yoghurt and fruit
Wholegrain toast with scrambled eggs and tomatoes
Wholegrain toast with peanut butter and a banana
It sounds like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised at how many of us don’t eat regularly throughout the day. Try to eat every 3-4 hours to sustain energy and keep blood sugar levels in a good range. Skipping meals can lead to low blood sugar, which can result in low mood, irritability and fatigue.
Balance your blood sugar levels
White refined carbohydrates (e.g. white rice, white bread) and high sugar foods (e.g. sweets and cakes) are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. This causes an initial surge of energy that soon wears off and results in a blood sugar dip, leaving us feeling tired and low.
To avoid this, when creating your meals opt for ‘Low-Glycaemic Index (GI)’ carbohydrates. Low-GI foods provide a steadier release of sugar into your blood for sustained energy. These foods include whole grains e.g. brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, beans, lentils, chickpeas, oats, whole grain bread and whole wheat pasta.
You can help to balance blood sugar further by including protein (e.g. eggs, yoghurt) or healthy fats (e.g. oily fish, avocado) into the meal. Protein and fat help to slow the release of sugar into the blood stream.
- Whole wheat couscous with feta, sundried tomatoes and cucumber
- Pumpkin risotto with parmesan and wilted spinach
- Quinoa salad with goats cheese and aubergine
- Lentil dahl with yoghurt and a side of sautéed kale
- Salmon with roasted sweet potato (skin on) and tenderstem broccoli
- Get your 5 a day!
Fruits and vegetables are rich in important vitamins and minerals to support optimal health, with the added benefit of fibre to maintain a healthy gut. Regular consumption of fruits and vegetables keeps you feeling energised and fuller for longer. Please note that many chemo regimes require you to avoid grapefruit.
Iron is required in our diet to make haemoglobin, which transports oxygen in your blood to energise your cells. Ensure that you include sources of iron in your diet to prevent anaemia, which leaves you feeling weak and tired.
Animal based sources of iron: beef, lamb and tuna.
Plant based sources of iron: tofu, quinoa, kidney beans, chickpeas, butter beans, lentils, dried figs and apricots, nuts and seeds and fortified cereals.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, it is important to know that plant sources of iron are less well absorbed by our bodies. However, adding a source of vitamin C with the meal aids iron absorption. Need some inspiration?
Porridge with pumpkin seeds and dried figs – serve with orange juice or orange as a whole fruit
Lentil curry – followed by eating kiwi fruit
Bean chilli – add bell pepper
Salad dressings made up with lemon or lime
Tofu stir fry with cashew nuts – add broccoli (broccoli offers vitamin C!)
Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals if you want to maximise iron absorption, as compounds called ‘tannins’ in these drinks inhibit iron absorption.
This family of vitamins have the following main functions:
Help to convert the energy from our foods.
Support optimum nerve function and therefore brain performance.
Foods high in B Vitamins include: eggs, whole grains (brown rice, whole grain bread, oats), fortified cereals, meat and dairy.
Vegans will need to supplement B12, as it is only found naturally in animal sources.
Be mindful of how much caffeine you are drinking
Too much caffeine can have drawbacks, and actually leave you feeling more lethargic. Try to stick to 400 mg of caffeine a day or less (2-3 cups of coffee).
You can be slightly more lenient with tea, at 50 mg caffeine per cup.
Ensure you stay hydrated as this greatly influences energy levels and brain function.
Nutrition and Mental Health
Nutrition is incredibly important in taking care of the brain. It makes sense, therefore, that our diet can have a powerful impact on our mental health.
The SMILES trial brought the link between diet and mental health into the spotlight in 2017 (1). This study involved 67 adults diagnosed with depression who consumed a poor diet. One group received a nutritional intervention to improve their diet, and the other group received social support. Over 12 weeks, those in the dietary improvement group had a significantly greater improvement in depressive symptoms. In fact, 30% went into remission, meaning they were no longer considered depressed! Although, it is important to note that many were still on medication. While diet alone cannot be seen as a treatment for depression, we now know that for people consuming a poor diet, improving nutritional intake alongside treatment can reduce depressive symptoms and accelerate the rate of recovery.
What is the best diet for a healthy brain?
A dietary pattern that supports brain health is made up of…
An abundance of fruits and vegetables
Regular consumption of legumes, wholegrains and nuts
Regular consumption of fish
Use of olive oil as the primary cooking oil
This pattern is characteristic of the traditional Mediterranean diet. Let’s explore in more detail why it contributes to good brain health.
Get your Omega-3!
The Mediterranean diet involves eating plenty of oily fish (e.g. salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel etc.), which are a rich source Omega-3. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, meaning our bodies cannot make them, and so we must get them from our diet.
The two main types of Omega-3s in fish are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Both are important in forming the structure of the brain cell.
Did you know that the human brain is 60% fat?
These fats allow brain cells to communicate effectively, promote the production of new brain cells in areas important for mood, and enhance the activity of the dopamine (reward) and serotonin (happy hormone) systems to keep us feeling good. They also reduce inflammation in the brain. Research has shown that Omega-3 supplementation can be helpful in reducing depressive symptoms (2).
To get your Omega-3, it is recommended to eat at least 2 portions of fish a week, one of which being oily. For those who don’t consume oily fish, it’s worth considering an Omega-3 supplement of at least 500mg EPA + DHA daily.
How can vegans and vegetarians get their Omega-3?
Plant sources of Omega-3 include walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and avocado. However, these contain a type of Omega-3 called ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) that is not easily converted to the important DHA and EPA forms in our bodies. Therefore, if you are vegan or vegetarian it is worth considering an algae-oil supplement to reach your DHA and EPA requirements. Surprisingly, fish get their Omega-3 from the food they eat! Algae manufacture Omega-3 through photosynthesis. It then travels up the food chain as algae are eaten by krill, which are then eaten by fish. We can extract Omega-3 from algae so that it’s vegan and vegetarian friendly.
Think about plant-based diversity…
Eating a diverse range of plant foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, positively impacts our gut microbiome (the trillions of microbes residing in our gut). New discoveries point to a link between gut health and mental health. This is likely due to a two-way communication that occurs between the gut and the brain, referred to as the gut-brain axis.
We now understand that a more diverse gut microbiome positively influences our overall physical and mental health. A wide variety of plant foods ensures that you are consuming different types of fibre and phytonutrients (plant chemicals), both of which encourage your gut microbes to flourish. Extra virgin olive oil, used abundantly in the Mediterranean diet, is high in plant chemicals called polyphenols that your gut microbes enjoy, so it is worth using as your primary cooking oil.
An added benefit of incorporating a variety of whole grains (e.g. brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and oats), is that they are packed with important B vitamins that support a healthy brain and nervous system, and are involved in the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine that influence our mood.
Should we be concerned about the Western diet?
There are concerns that the Western diet is detrimental to mental health, and this is likely down to a few factors. The Western diet is typically high in refined carbohydrates (e.g. white pasta, rice and bread). During processing, the grains used to produce these carbohydrates are stripped of their fibrous outer layer, along with the important B vitamins that are essential to brain health.
In the UK, we are vastly under consuming dietary fibre, which we know is important to maintain a healthy gut, and in turn a healthy brain. The average daily intake of fibre in the UK is currently only 19g, compared to the recommended 30g. Did you know that only 30% of the UK population are eating their 5 a day?
Moreover, the majority of the UK population don’t consume enough oily fish, containing the brain-boosting, anti-inflammatory Omega-3s. This, combined with the overconsumption of alcohol, excess sugar and saturated fats that are typical of the Western diet, contributes to possible long-term systemic inflammation that is associated with depression.
The good news…
The good news is that improving your diet in line with current guidelines (rather than any extreme diets) can positively impact on brain health. While having a nutrient-dense diet does not make us immune to mental health challenges, it is certainly worth considering how our food choices shape our brains.
References to studies mentioned:
- Jacka et al. (2017). A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the “SMILES” trial). https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y
2 .Liao et al. (2019). Efficacy of omega-3 PUFAs in depression: A meta-analysis. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-019-0515-5
I used many of the recipes in these books but tried to substitute any cane sugar with other types of sweeteners, such as stevia, raw honey or dates. I also tried to substitute almond flour (ground almonds) or chestnut flour wherever a recipe required normal wheat based flour!