Food Fight: Diet is an Effective Weapon
in the Battle Against Cancer
Most people know the foods they eat have a big impact on their risk of cancer. But did you realize diet can be an important part of cancer treatment?
Dena McDowell, RD says nutrition makes a real difference for cancer patients. “If patients eat a well-balanced diet, it helps the immune system,” she explains. “It can also help maintain weight and energy level throughout treatment — and that, in turn, can help a person recover faster when treatment is over.”
McDowell is the registered dietitian for the Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Center, where nutritional counseling is a free service. She says cancer patients can face several nutritional problems.
Common challenges include weight loss, nausea, constipation and diarrhea. McDowell tackles these problems case by case, evaluating the patient’s current diet and developing an individualized meal plan. She also addresses any challenges related to particular forms of cancer or specific treatments. Patients with head and neck cancer, for example, often need help overcoming problems chewing and swallowing.
To help patients prepare physically for treatment, McDowell encourages them to increase protein and vitamin C. She says good nutrition is also important after treatment: “If you are in recovery, make sure you get enough protein to boost your immune system, plus fruits and vegetables, whole grains and proper hydration.”
Separating Fact from Fad
McDowell says some cancer patients are interested in exploring herbs and supplements. She is open to this, but cautions: “Since supplements are not FDA-approved, there is a potential for interaction.” McDowell researches the herbs patients ask about. “If no interaction is indicated, we usually allow it, but we let the patient know there could be risks,” she says. “If the herb is unsafe, we discourage it.”
Part of McDowell’s job is helping patients separate fact from fad. “Many people, for example, believe sugar fuels the growth of cancer cells. This is unfounded,” she says. “Cancer is fueled not only by sugar, but by everything you eat.” McDowell recommends looking at the source of the sugar: “It makes sense to watch sodas, candies and juices, but there is no need to exclude fruits and grains.”
Rx: Grain of Salt
For reliable information on cancer nutrition, McDowell encourages people to visit Small Stones, a health resource center developed by Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin (see article on back cover). “Small Stones has a plethora of information on all kinds of different cancer and nutrition topics.”
When it comes to the media, McDowell prescribes a healthy grain of salt. “There is so much information out there that may not have a research basis behind it, and some things are expensive and potentially harmful,” she says. “I try to educate patients on what is based on research and what is just someone trying to make a fast buck.”
Swing the Odds in Your Favor
Want to decrease your risk of cancer? Dena McDowell, RD recommends three powerful diet changes:
- Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Your diet should include 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
- Eat more beans. Take some of the meat out of your menu and replace it with bean-based dishes like lentil soup and vegetarian chili.
- Eat fewer processed foods. Decrease your intake of canned and boxed foods and fastfood meals. “One of the best things to do is shop the ‘periphery’ of the grocery store,”says McDowell. “That’s where most of the food is fresh. Most of the stuff in the middleof the store is processed.”