April 11, 2017
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, focusing on your diet can be therapeutic in so many ways, from enhancing the impact of conventional cancer treatment and managing its side effects, to aiding your rehabilitation afterwards. And in a situation when you can feel you have very little control, it can also be empowering to take charge of your diet – you choose the food, you choose when you eat it. For those of us who care for someone with cancer, when it can seem at times that there’s very little we can do practically to help, knowing that we’re giving someone the best nourishing foods can be a way to do something positive, caring and loving.
We've produced our Nourish Drinks to give the perfect blend of protein, calories, vitamins and minerals both for when you're undergoing cancer therapies and to aid your recovery after treatment.
Developing cancer is one of our most common health worries. If we don’t suffer from cancer ourselves, it’s likely that we know someone who has – one in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point.
Inheriting certain genes increases our likelihood of developing some cancers, which is why genetic research is so important and will increasingly provide valuable insights into how and when to screen at-risk people. The incidence of different cancers varies hugely but, worryingly, the numbers of people affected are on the rise. The four most common cancers – breast, lung, bowel and prostate – make up over half of all cancer cases.
It's important to look at what we can do to reduce our cancer risk in the first place – and what we put into our body has a profound impact on that. Two-thirds of bowel cancer cases could be prevented by eating, drinking and living well. Weight gain is strongly linked to an increased risk of stomach and oesophageal cancer, according to a study from the National Cancer Institute in the US. The Mediterranean Diet has been found by the World Cancer Research Fund to reduce risk of contracting one of the most dangerous forms of breast cancer by 40 per cent. The same study also found a strong relationship between weight gain around the waist and incidences of womb cancer – even a small increase in waist size can lead to a 21 per cent increase in risk of the disease.
Fortunately, we know that eating a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and high in fibre, can significantly reduce our risk of some types of cancer. The strongest links between cancer risk and what we put into our mouths is with bowel cancer, but it also applies to cancers of the mouth, throat and stomach, and to breast cancer.
Eating when you have cancer
The challenges you face when you’re diagnosed with cancer vary considerably, from surgery to chemical, immunological or radioactive therapies. But food, nutrition and nourishment can be something positive and empowering to draw on, especially if you’re facing challenges such as nausea and difficulty swallowing.
We never really talk about the fact that it is often malnutrition which causes someone to die, not the disease itself. It’s incredibly important that we look at ways in which we can help nourish the body, especially as cancer treatment can make eating difficult. By looking at common symptoms and providing simple, delicious solutions for them, we can help to support the body and use food as an empowering force when living with cancer.
Go to our Symptoms section for tips on how to manage common side effects of cancer and its treatment:
Fasting before cancer treatment
There’s increasing evidence that fasting before chemo or immuno therapies may increase the impact of the treatment and reduce the side effects of chemo-toxicity, such as sickness and diarrhoea. More research is needed but studies so far have shown promising results for pre-treatment fasting – that is, cutting out food and virtually all drinks (water and very dilute juice is permitted) for two to three days before treatment.
Scientists believe the energy restriction caused by fasting results in cancer cells (which divide and grow at a fast rate) being unable to defend themselves as quickly as usual. As a result, they are more vulnerable to the effects of the chemotherapy or immunotherapy treatment. At the same time, healthy cells are in maintenance mode and so more resistant to the toxic side effects of the drugs.Fasting can be tough, especially when you already feel unwell, and it isn’t recommended if you have certain types of cancer or other health conditions. For more information take a look at our blog, Fasting Before Cancer Treatment.
Frequently asked questions on food and cancer
Does meat cause cancer?
While several studies have suggested that a high consumption of red or processed meat is linked with an increase in the risk of bowel cancer, the evidence is a lot stronger for a link between a diet heavy in processed meats (for example, bacon or ham) than if we ate some good-quality lean steak a couple of times a week. Overall, studies suggest that eating about 50g of processed meat a day (around two slices of ham or a slice of bacon) may increase the risk of bowel cancer by around 20 per cent. The studies don’t distinguish between a piece of cheap salami and a slice of well-reared pancetta, although for me this makes a stronger case for choosing our meat well and eating a smaller amount of a good quality product.
Scientists advise us to limit our consumption of processed meat and to keep our consumption of red meat to 500g a week or less, which gives us real scope for enjoying some delicious meat-based meals. Bear in mind that a bolognaise sauce made with 500g of lean, good-quality beef mince would serve six hungry adults. And to put the role some meats can play into perspective, studies suggest that by smoking 20 cigarettes a day our lung cancer risk is 100-200 times greater than the effect of eating more than the recommended amount of processed meat!
Is there a link between high salt intake and cancer?
When it comes to salt’s relationship with cancer, studies are in their infancy, but the stomach can be more likely to fall prey to cancer if you have a high-salt diet. Smoked foods can be heavy in salt – this includes, unfortunately, such delicacies as smoked mackerel and salmon. There isn’t any need to avoid them completely, just try not to have too much and give your body a dose of fresh vegetables and wholegrain goodness alongside to help compensate. A few slices of smoked salmon on warm wholegrain bread, served with a big watercress and raw spinach and tomato salad, is far better for you all round than if you have the same smoked salmon with white bread, with a poor quality margarine on it, and a bag of crisps.
What’s the connection between cancer and our weight?
A relationship exists between carrying too much weight and cancer, particularly cancer of the oesophagus (the tube leading from your mouth to your stomach), bowel, pancreas, endometrium (the lining of the womb), kidney, gallbladder and breast (in post-menopausal women). To put a context on the risk, men are a staggering 50 per cent more likely to develop bowel cancer if their weight rises and puts them into the obese zone, while the figure for women is 25 per cent.
Exercise can help us to lose weight but also get into the positive eating zone that so often goes hand in hand with being motivated to get active. Keeping fit has also been shown to make the likelihood of bowel, endometrial and post-menopausal breast cancer go down. As to how much exercise we need to do, while the recommendation is for at least half an hour five times a week, something is always better than nothing, even if it’s cycling to work, or getting off the bus or tube a few stops early and walking.
Will wine protect me from cancer?
Seldom a week passes without a headline discussing the antioxidant properties of beer or red wine. We now know that it’s really only in the laboratory setting that red wine’s antioxidants offer us any real benefits, and I suspect that the other types of alcoholic antioxidants won’t fare any better.
In fact, more studies find a convincing relationship between drinking too much alcohol and the development of mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver and bowel cancers. Alcohol is also a key factor in increasing the risk of breast cancer in women. If we’re really serious, we shouldn’t be going above two units per day for men and one for women.
Do dairy products increase my risk of cancer?
Studies have not yet given clear results. Recent research shows that a higher intake of calcium (found in dairy products) can protect against bowel cancer, but some early research also suggests that there could be a link between dairy intake and the risk of developing prostate and ovarian cancers. For breast cancer the evidence is conflicting. A link between breast cancer and dairy products has been suggested, possibly because of the saturated fats they contain, or contaminants that could be present, but there is no clear evidence to support this. Another theory is that dairy products might help protect against breast cancer. But again, this needs to be backed up by firm evidence.
A large European study called EPIC (European Prospective Investigation of Cancer) is currently looking at the relationship between diet, lifestyle and cancer. It will produce reports on diet and lifestyle and a variety of cancers over the next 10 to 20 years, starting with bowel cancer and breast cancer. For the time being I believe that we should continue to include some dairy foods in our diet, as they’re such a good source of calcium.
When it came to producing our Nourish Drinks, we opted for cow's milk because it offers the best nutrient profile base to provide accessible, easy nourishment. Calcium-rich foods including cow’s milk are also proven to be beneficial to bone health (which can be affected by certain medication, such as steroids) and there is interesting research showing they can help our bowel produce anti-cancer substances such as butyrate. Plant-based milks do not have the same balance of protein and calories, meaning you would need to drink a significantly larger volume to achieve the same nutritional benefits – not easy if poor appetite is a problem.
Should I eat soya products instead of dairy foods?
Whether soya is good or bad is one of the hottest contested topics surrounding cancer. Soya contains phytoestrogens, chemicals naturally found in plants. Phytoestrogens have a similar structure to the female sex hormone oestrogen and have been found to influence the effects of the menopause. There are different types of phytoestrogens – as well as those found in soya bean products (isoflavones), others are found in the fibre of wholegrains, fruit, vegetables and flax seed (lignans).
Soya isoflavone types of foods are attracting the most research. A joint study by Cancer Research UK, the National Cancer Institute of the USA and the National University of Singapore found that women with a soya-rich diet had breast tissue that was less dense than that of women with a low-soya diet. Higher density of breast tissue has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. This is the first study to directly link eating soya with an effect on breast tissue. Asian women, who eat the highest amount of soya foods, have a lower risk of breast cancer. However, it's not clear whether genetic make-up (which influences the way that the body metabolises food) and environmental factors interact with the soya and therefore produce different effects in the body. What we can say is that in other parts of the world, and it's certainly the case in Britain, most women do not eat enough soya to reduce their risk of breast cancer.
Should I eat soya if I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer?
Although studies still don’t give us any clear guidance on eating soya-rich foods if you have been diagnosed with an oestrogen-dependent type of breast cancer, I would suggest staying away from soya. A little isn’t going to cause anything disastrous, I just mean that you shouldn’t choose the soya-rich options on menus. The possible downsides of creating an environment that could potentially encourage the growth of these tumour cells far outweighs any potential benefits you may glean from soya. If you’re vegetarian or vegan this presents a practical hurdle, as so many prepared meat-free foods are soya-based, so focus on lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and grains like spelt and quinoa as good sources of protein.
Does too much sugar cause cancer?
There is some evidence that consuming large amounts of sugar is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including oesophageal cancer. Too much sweet stuff can also lead to weight gain and increase the risk of obesity and diabetes, which may increase the risk of cancer. The problem with sugar is that it’s pretty addictive yet satisfying for only a few moments. If you’re struggling with cravings, try to avoid all sweet foods apart from fresh fruits for a short time. Go for a walk, chant a mantra, sniff a vanilla pod (it works for some people) – do whatever it takes to distract you from raiding the biscuit tin. After 48 to 72 hours you’ll be past the danger zone and won’t need half as much willpower to resist.
Will eating sugar make my cancer grow faster?
Sugar doesn’t make cancer grow faster. All cells, including cancer cells, depend on blood sugar (glucose) for energy, but giving more sugar to cancer cells doesn’t speed their growth. Likewise, depriving cancer cells of sugar doesn't slow their growth.
This misconception may be based in part on a misunderstanding of positron emission tomography (PET) scans, which produce three-dimensional images of inside the body and are used to find out if a cancer has spread or how well it is responding to treatment. Before a PET scan you will be injected with a small amount of radioactive trace, typically a form of glucose. All tissues in your body absorb some of this tracer, but tissues that are using more energy — including cancer cells — absorb greater amounts, which allows them to be identified by the scan. For this reason, some people have concluded that cancer cells grow faster when we eat more sugar. But this simply isn’t true and cutting out all sweet foods can leave you exhausted, may cause you to lose weight when it’s advisable not to, and can deprive you of a valuable source of calories.
Satisfy sweet cravings with foods that contain additional nutrients, such as delicious fresh or dried fruits, including medjool dates, figs and apricots, or a simple fruit crumble made with stewed fruits and topped with a crunchy wholemeal crumble topping containing ground nuts and a little muscovado sugar. Agave, date syrup, honey and coconut sugar are delicious to cook with but still affect blood sugar in a similar way to unrefined sugar, so you need to ensure that you don’t overdo them.
Nourish Drinks can help provide the nutrients you need when you're living with cancer, having treatment or you're in recovery