Nutrition: The role of diet in preventing and treating cancer

Tuesday 08 May 2018

I thought that you would be interested about two recent Radio 4 programmes (17/19 May).The topic for both was, ‘should diet have a bigger role in preventing and treating cancer’. I am not sure if any of you listened to either of them but they were quite interesting, although having said that nothing was a complete surprise. Many people were interviewed as part of the programme, both medics and cancer patients with their experiences and opinions.

Lack of nutritional advice given to patients

The general feeling by the medics was that once someone has been diagnosed with cancer that there is so much to consider and organise like the best treatments available and that nutrition is not felt to be a priority.

This attitude is possibly born out of the fact that doctors who were interviewed did explain that while they were training there was not sufficient time on the curriculum to study nutrition. Consequently they were fairly ignorant about its importance.

Most people who look for advice from their medical practitioner are told to eat as healthily as they can or that there is no need to worry about diet. One lady interviewed was quite staggered when the nurse told her that to worry about diet once a diagnosis had been made was like snuffing out the candle on your birthday cake once the house had burned down. Another cancer patients experience when she asked for advice on food and cancer was  simply told not to eat unpasteurised cheeses and to cook meat really well and not to worry beyond that!! Not really very helpful I think you would agree and very out of touch.

The quality of the food in hospital was also questioned one patient describing it like ready meals only or toast. Another patient commenting on the trolley that came around the ward full of chocolate bars, crisps and fizzy drinks. No consideration at all for eating well.

Another frustrated patient found the support and advice that she was craving from the Maggie’s centre in London describing it as a great help, so well done Maggie’s.

Another possible reason for this ambiguity towards diet and cancer is the fact that research on the effect of food and cancer is difficult to obtain and very costly with no end product like a drug to show for it. The evidence for food and cancer is mainly developed as a result of experiments in the lab or on animals or through observational studies. This as we know is not the gold standard but nonetheless strong evidence supported by scientific research and therefore should not be ignored. On pub med (a website that publishes the latest research studies) there are thousands of reports giving very strong evidence. One observational study quoted in the programme was that people who live in the Southern Mediterranean countries had better cancer survival rates than those people who live in European countries despite treatment not being as good. The reason for this, was put down to the Mediterranean diet, high in olive oil, fish and fresh vegetables.

Conner Middelmann-Whitney had what she described as a ‘brush’ with cancer and struggled to find any reliable information and practical guidance on eating well and as a consequence to this has now written a book called Zest for Life, a Mediterranean anti cancer diet book, which I happen to have on my book shelf. Although she is not a qualified nutritionist she prides herself on developing a book that was practical full of ideas and recipes that can be incorporated into our busy day to day lives. She describes diet as a way of controlling the uncontrollable which I think is quite nice but only part of the picture. If we consider how the body works and the fact we are made of billions and billions of cells which can only function through the food and nutrition they receive which can only come from what we eat. Poor diet low in vital nutrients will undoubtedly be a burden to these cells and give them low vitality and energy, where as a diet rich in the correct nutrients will give the cells vitality and energy which will of course benefit us as a whole. You can tell I am passionate as I am now on my soapbox!!!!! I could go on.

Nutrition is making its mark
Having said all this, not all cancer specialists are ignoring the importance of diet. Brian Jury in the Cedar Cancer Centre in Los Angeles takes the role of food seriously believing that it enhances the quality of life and he encourages his patients to avoid fast foods, (high in salt, sugar and damaged fats) as he believes that these are known to be harmful he quoted acrylamide on cooked food which has been shown to be carcinogenic. He does emphasis that his patients should not rely wholly on food as it was not a cure but an important part of getting well. Also recently Dr, Michelle Harvey and Prof. Tony Howell in Manchester, have launched a book called The 2 Day Diet as a result of observing patients who benefited from following such a programme. Many GP’s also seem to be coming around to the link between food and health and there is now a nutrition degree that has been developed for medical practitioners to attend. The lady who runs it is over subscribed but interestingly enough at the time of interview could not recall one oncologist applying to study. This of course may be due to time constraints.

The world cancer research fund published a comprehensive report evaluating thousands of studies and concluded that many cancers could be prevented if people ate more healthily and exercised regularly.

Most patient interviewed felt that dietitians in hospitals should be better researched. That more information on the impact of diet and cancer should be made available at the onset of diagnosis and that food should be taken seriously. I am sure that in the defence of the medics that time is a great issue but also feel that they could acknowledge the importance of food and its role in healing.


Blog originally written by Caroline May 2013

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