The Importance Of Nutrition In Fighting Cancer

As many of us know all too well, a cancer diagnosis for you or a loved one is a sea change. While day-to-day life goes on, cancer symptoms and the ongoing effects of treatments usher in a myriad of adjustments.  Typically, our food preferences and eating habits are deeply entrenched, and therefore, getting optimally supportive nutrition can be challenging, but it is vitally important. 

As a Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for ADSA, (The Association for Dietetics in South Africa), Omy Naidoo points out, “Cancer propels the body into a catabolic state where both muscle mass and fat are breaking down, therefore the nutritional needs of cancer patients increases.  To meet this, there needs to be a careful focus on protein, calorie, and vitamin intake. 

Unfortunately, this need for increased nutrition comes at a time when it’s highly common to experience a general loss of appetite and the side effects of treatment that can seriously impair a patient’s interest in eating.  This makes a focus on nutrition a critical part of a patient’s cancer journey.”

Revealing a cancer diagnosis in your circle often opens the floodgates to well-meaning nutritional advice that can lead to going down unhelpful ‘rabbit-holes’.  There’s a mass of information and promotion around ‘alternative’ or ‘natural’ cancer nutritional support, even cancer ‘nutritional cures’.  This can be overwhelming, confusing, and frustrating during a vulnerable time.  It is important to note that there is currently no scientific evidence that any particular food, food supplement, or diet can cure cancer.

Cancer patients in both the private and the public healthcare systems do have access to the support of a dietitian, who is the only health professional that has specifically qualified in evidence-based nutrition.  If you’re feeling uncertain about what you or your loved one should be eating and drinking, it’s time to ask your doctor to help bring a dietitian onboard.  It’s important to discuss any natural remedy you want to introduce with your doctor or dietitian to ensure that there are no unintended interactions with the treatment you are undergoing.

While nutritional support for cancer patients focuses on avoiding malnutrition, some foods are allies, and some are to be avoided.  Another ADSA spokesperson, Registered Dietitian, Faaizah Laher puts it in a nutshell:

Foods to avoid during cancer treatment and recovery:
  • Avoid or limit alcohol
  • Avoid or limit highly refined, highly processed foods
  • Limit foods high in sugar, including sweets, cakes and sugary drinks
  • Limit foods that are high in salt
  • Limit foods that are high in animal fats
  • Avoid or limit cured meats such as bacon, ham and sausages
Focus instead on
  • Eating lots of fresh vegetables and fruits every day
  • Enjoying lean animal protein such as chicken breast and fish
  • Including more plant-based foods high in protein such as beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, quinoa and soy-based foods
  • Choosing whole-grain options such as brown bread, brown rice and wholewheat pasta
  • Increasing your intake of nuts and seeds
  • Focusing on sources of healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados and fatty fish like sardines
Tips for bypassing the typical nutritional roadblocks

Omy Naidoo says, “Cancer patients undergoing treatment often experience a severe loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, as well as dysgeusia which is taste alterations. Very often these patients need high protein, vitamin-containing supplements which they drink 2-3 times per day.  Some patients need tailored diets to help them get through spells of nausea and vomiting, and this is exactly how your dietitian can help you.

It’s important to remember that cancer patients need more nutrition, however, they typically end up taking in much less than usual due to these symptoms. The nett effect of this is that patients can lose muscle mass and become malnourished. This is precisely what you want to avoid as malnutrition then becomes an independent risk factor for poorer outcomes.” 

If you or a loved one are dealing with these challenges, then you need to reset your daily nutritional regime:

  • Focus on smaller, lighter meals eaten more frequently than the standard three meals a day
  • Experiment with healthy snack foods that are always on hand such as wholewheat crackers, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables
  • Try out delicious nutrient-rich smoothies
  • Add nuts and seeds to yoghurt, cereals, smoothies, and even casseroles
  • Make frozen lolly treats from fresh fruit juices, fruit, yoghurt and smoothies
  • Use nutritional supplements prescribed by your health professional

Most important is to remember that combatting malnutrition is your goal.  Take action and get professional nutritional advice to help the cancer patient maintain their weight as best as possible.

Healthy nutrition also reduces your risk of cancer

While some risk factors for cancer cannot be changed, research shows that 30 to 50% of major cancers can be prevented by following a healthy lifestyle. Faaizah Laher says, “While there is no guaranteed way to prevent cancer, a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk of developing many cancers and positively support treatment and recovery if you are diagnosed with cancer.

Think of eating the colours of a rainbow and lots of variety of nutritious foods (such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes). Along with healthy eating, an active lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight play important roles in reducing risk and boosting your resilience.”

Meet the Dietitian: Community Service Series

My Unexpected Journey

Written by JéJéan du Plessis

As a little girl walking around the grocery store, it was the norm for me to turn around the pretty pictures of products and focus on the more ‘boring’ nutritional information.

   This was to ensure that I stay clear from any allergens that could lead to an eventful trip to the hospital. Being surrounded by all of the knowledge of food as a child (and now adult) with severe allergies, it was quite inevitable for me to find a passion for nutrition, thus leading me to study dietetics at the NWU Potchefstroom Campus.

   Like most of us, while studying for my degree at Potchefstroom, I quickly developed a love for therapeutic nutrition. Any form of Hospital assignments or practicals were written in my diary with the most beautiful washi tapes and highlighters, and during my last year, I was completely fascinated by all hepatic- and liver-related diseases.

   This led me to be deeply disappointed, as I was not placed at either of my five options for my Community Service Year. I was placed in the District Office in Ekurhuleni, which is Clinic-based work. Yet, and to my surprise, I am enjoying it tremendously! I mostly see outpatients throughout my day; do in-service training with the clinic staff members; are responsible for health campaigns; visit surrounding ECD centres; Old Age Homes; and Mental Health Institutions.

   In the past few months, my love for Community Nutrition grew overwhelmingly, and I was never aware of just how rewarding this spectrum of dietetics can be! You walk a close path with each of your patients, struggle with them to find a suitable diet, and try different approaches to see which will fit their lifestyle best. Through this process, you really get to know the person sitting on the other side of the table, which truly spoke to me, as you can really feel the difference you make in most lives.

   A new field of interest for me is definitely Diabetes and the nutritional management thereof, since I quickly realised that these people’s way of living is changing drastically within a few weeks from diagnoses, and giving them the best possible support will make the worlds difference to them, but that can also be said about any patient seen in the clinic setting.

The moral of my story is the following:

  • The biggest curveballs in life can be full of opportunities and self-exploration experiences that will ensure huge growth within you as an individual, and newly graduated dietitian.
  • Always remember that you are making a difference, no matter if you are calculating a TPN feed in an ICU setting, or if you are working at the local clinic with patients who really need your expert advice to live the best possible quality of life.