A Dietitian Dispels 3 Myths About Eating Well With Cancer
Receiving a cancer diagnosis prompts many people to seek as much information as possible about their diagnosis. While it’s important to learn about your cancer and how to stay healthy, it’s also critical to use credible sources of information. Between the internet, TV, and the media, we have access to an abundance of information. Often, it’s not targeted to your individual needs and experiences, and it’s not always accurate.
Cancer nutrition is one area where myths and misconceptions can create confusion and needless worry. Oncology dietitian Chelsey Schneider, of Savor Health, spoke with our Senior Director of Education and Outreach, Rachel Saks, about what people can do to eat healthy after a cancer diagnosis or treatment. Schneider also cleared up some common misconceptions about the impacts nutrition has for cancer patients.
Here are 3 myths about nutrition, and the facts that debunk them:
Myth #1: Organic food is always healthier.
Some marketing tactics and reports claim that organic foods are healthier, but there has been no convincing or significant evidence showing a difference between organic and conventionally grown foods related to cancer risk. In fact, market studies show pesticide residues on conventionally grown foods are almost always within safety tolerance limits.
Of course, it’s important to take steps to avoid potential exposures to pesticides. We recommend these tips:
- Wash up. You should wash all produce items before use. This reduces potential pesticides and removes bugs, bacteria, and microorganisms that can cause illness. Some foods have higher pesticide levels than others. The Environmental Working Group annually releases 2 lists, Dirty Dozen™ and Clean Fifteen™, to help people reduce exposures to toxic pesticides.
- Shop wisely. The lists from EWG can be used as a resource to determine what foods you may want to buy organic. But remember, just because it’s organic doesn’t make it healthy. For example, cookies, candies, and other snack items can be “organic,” but not nutritious. The bottom line: Organic foods can come at a high cost. So, don’t stress and only buy what's affordable for you.
- Aim to eat the rainbow. The advantages of eating a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits strongly outweighs any potential risks from pesticides in terms of cancer prevention and supporting your cancer treatment.
Tip: “Wash or scrub fruits and vegetables under running water — even if you do not plan to eat the peel. Germs on the peel or skin can get inside fruits and vegetables when you cut them.”
Myth #2: Sugar feeds cancer. Avoid it at all costs.
It’s a common misconception that sugar wreaks havoc on our bodies and “causes” cancer. The truth is, our cells need glucose to function. Glucose, a simple sugar, is the preferred source of energy for the brain and muscles. If sugar is removed from the diet, our bodies can find other ways to create glucose through metabolism of fats and proteins.
That said, all people should strive to limit added sugars in their diet. Diets high in sugar lead to increased blood sugar levels and a rise in insulin levels, which can put our bodies in a proinflammatory state. Moreover, high-sugar foods are typically high in calories. Over time, a high-calorie diet can lead to excess body weight. Being overweight or obese is linked to a greater risk for several types of cancer, including colorectal cancer.
The bottom line: You can enjoy sugars as part of a healthy diet. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Avoid added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages. Focus on natural sugars in fruits and vegetables that come prepackaged with fiber, water, antioxidants, and other nutrients.
- Try to pair foods high in carbohydrates with a source of protein, fat, and fiber. Each of these additional components is key in the digestion and metabolism of sugar. Combined, they promote energy but reduce inflammatory responses.
- Enjoy your favorite sweets in moderation. As with most things, moderation is key. Fully eliminating a type of food from your diet without medical necessity (such as a food allergy or a prescription diet) can set yourself up for failure and irritability. When you remove a food or food group from your diet, you also might miss out on getting vital nutrients.
Myth #3: I need supplements to stay healthy.
In reality, supplements aren’t usually necessary to stay healthy. You cannot get the protective benefits linked to eating whole foods by isolating specific substances in pills. Supplements lack the “prepackaged” nutrients you’ll get from a whole food (fiber, water, antioxidants, and other nutrients).
If you are eating well and do not have malabsorption issues, you likely do not need supplements. You should always check with your doctor before beginning a supplement regimen, especially if you are pursuing active cancer treatment.
Some people who have been diagnosed with cancer do need supplements. Examples of situations where a medical team may prescribe a supplement regimen include:
- After surgery (especially surgeries related to the gastrointestinal tract)
- If you are diagnosed with a vitamin deficiency or malabsorption issue – Vitamin D is commonly prescribed to people with cancer because of its critical role in immune function and bone health.
- If you follow a plant-based diet – Some people who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet may be deficient in vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is a necessary component for DNA production, nerve health, and red blood cell health that is naturally found in animal products like meat, cheese, fish, milk, and eggs. Since plant-based diets eliminate many, if not all, animal products, be sure to discuss your potential need for supplements with your medical team and oncology dietitian.
- If you are unable to eat a healthy, varied diet due to allergies or treatment side effects – Share this information with your medical team and discuss whether supplementation is an option for you.
Remember that supplements can never replace a varied and healthful diet. Always talk to your doctor about your diet and nutrition concerns and questions, including any recommendations you may have received from friends or the media.
In closing, we encourage you to be a nutrition detective. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Sudden dietary changes can negatively affect your treatment and recovery. Before making any drastic dietary changes, always talk to a member of your medical team, such as a doctor, a nurse, or an oncology dietitian.
Want to learn more? Watch Rachel Saks’s conversation with Savor Health’s Chelsey Schneider, “How to Eat Well with Cancer,” as they discuss the role of oncology dietitians and how to eat healthy after a cancer diagnosis or treatment.
About Savor Health
Savor Health is a digital health company that provides precision nutrition interventions to manage cancer and other complex conditions. Their Intelligent Nutrition Assistant, Ina®, provides free, 24/7, unlimited, HIPAA-compliant, and secure nutrition services, all from your phone.