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Foods fuel the fight

Published 10/15/2011 in Special Sections


Defying cancer with a healthy diet is a real possibility.

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While some kinds of cancers are not preventable, eating certain foods can help prevent other types that are curable and have survival rates greater than heart disease and stroke, said Christie Meyers, a registered and licensed dietitian at St. Catherine Hospital.

Meyers works with a variety of individuals on meeting nutritional needs: from hospital patients currently undergoing cancer treatments to healthy individuals looking to improve their daily diets.

Several foods and diet trends currently are being researched for their effects on cancer, Meyers said, and many have been found to contain agents that aid in cancer prevention. Cancer, a group of diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells, is the second-leading cause of death in the United States next to heart disease, according to the dietitian.

"With any health condition, so many diseases can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle," she said. "With cancer, some (types) can't be prevented, but others can."

Meyers said fruits and vegetables are the primary foods that have been studied in cancer prevention. Many of those studies, Meyers said, have found diets based heavily on plants are cancer-fighting, in addition to offering a plethora of other related health benefits.

Meyers recommended that individuals can increase their vegetable and fruit intake in the following ways: adding a new fruit or vegetable to their diet each week; doubling their normal serving size of vegetables; eating fruit on cereal or muesli (not just bananas but also apples, grapes, berries, peaches and mandarin oranges); eating fruit as a snack; eating dried fruit instead of candy; or having baked fruit for dessert.

In addition, consuming raw or cooked fruits and vegetables is preferable to drinking them in liquid form, such as with orange juice or vegetable juice, the nutrition expert added. Sources of meat and protein also can be very healthy, according to the dietitian, if they are eaten in moderation, come from a variety of sources — from beef to beans to dairy — and are taken from lean cuts of meat.

"With a healthy diet, taking part in physical activity, maintaining a healthy body weight throughout life and limiting alcohol intake, a lot of diseases are preventable," she said.

When working with cancer patients, nutrition itself can be adversely affected, both by the cancer itself and the treatments prescribed.

Meyers said many cancer-stricken individuals undergoing chemotherapy or other treatment methods face dietary issues of malnutrition or other nutritional deficiencies. Radiation treatments can have a host of side effects on patients: nausea, vomiting, difficulty swallowing and loss of appetite, Meyers added.

"(Cancer) treatment is about battling the cells that are toxic in the body. But many chemotherapies also wipe out the entire immune system. That's why food safety is a huge issue," Meyers said. "Other times, we recommend certain foods they can tolerate better, or (foods) we can blend or alter in some ways to make (intake) easier. For many, we come up with ways to increase calories in their diet. ... A feeding tube can be a last resort."

There are literally thousands of chemicals in a diet — some well known, others little known and unmeasured. Meyers said she tells her clients to do "more and better with less."

"Doctors treat symptoms. What I can do is go in and approach (the situation) with diets that may help," Meyers said. "It's all about meeting people's individual needs."

Foods that help foil cancer

* Whole grains: contains vitamins, minerals, unsaturated fatty acids, fiber and phytochemicals.

* Fiber: Helps speed transit of food through the colon, decreasing the time the intestinal walls are exposed to cancer causing substances

* Fluids: Aids fiber to move food through the colon. Also dilutes carcinogens and causes frequent urination, reducing the risk of bladder cancer. Water or most any kind of fluid, except alcohol, will do.

* Fruits and vegetables: Contain antioxidants and phytochemicals (which help repair damaged DNA) including vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, folate and selenium. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts) help reduce the risk of lung, bladder and prostate cancers.

Foods eaten in excess that may increase risk for cancer

* Fat and fatty acids: Diets high in saturated fat, mostly from animal products, are associated with increased risk of prostate cancer. A high fat diet also may contribute to obesity, another risk factor.

* Charred foods: The smoke from charcoal or wood has many potentially dangerous chemicals. Fat dripping from meat or added oil vaporizes and can stick to food. Eating smoked, grilled or char-grilled food occasionally (once or twice a month) should be okay. Excessive consumption introduces carcinogens to the body, which may lead to stomach or colorectal cancer.

* Processes, smoked or salted meats: Many contain nitrates and other chemicals that increase risk of mouth and stomach cancer.

Source: Sandy Killam-Hall, M.S., R.D., L.D., "Wellness & You: Some Answers About Cancer" from Sodexo Health Care Services

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