5 Things You Need to Know About Cancer & Food

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Pediatric oncologist Kara Kelly is the program director for hematology-oncology at the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital.
Pediatric oncologist Kara Kelly is the program director for hematology-oncology at the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital.

Food is fuel for your body. And just like in cars, if you put the wrong fuel inside, something unfortunate is likely to occur. Bad eating habits can lead to an array of medical outcomes, including cancer. What you decide to consume for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacking can have a detrimental outcome on your quality of life. Cancer risk reduction starts with a healthy diet.

“The importance of eating a balanced diet is twofold,” said pediatric oncologist Kara Kelly, who teaches pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo. “For one, you want to get the synergy of the combination of nutrients, particularly from the more plant-based foods. The second is that these same foods are low in calories and therefore reduce the risk of excess fat and weight gain.”

Kelly —— who also serves as program director for pediatric hematology/oncology at the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, offers five connections between food and cancer.

1. What you eat, if done in a balanced way, can help to prevent cancer.

What has been shown to be important is a diet that’s balanced in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other plant foods, Kelly said. It’s the synergy of all these foods in combination that is associated with reduction cancer risk rather than a single nutrient from the foods.

“For patients with cancer, it can help reduce the side effects of treatment,” said Kelly. “But there’s no single food that prevents cancer. You can’t take vitamin C or selenium or any other single nutrient and prevent cancer.”

2. Make your calories count, and that’s about what you eat as well as what you don’t eat.

Fill your plate more than two-thirds full with plant-based foods — veggies, fruits, whole grains, beans — and limit your intake of processed foods and fast food and foods high in saturated fat.

“We often recommend that you eat a rainbow of colors,” said Kelly, who is co-author of “Integrative Strategies for Cancer Patients: A Practical Resource for Managing the Side Effects of Cancer Therapy.”

“The more intensely colored foods and vegetables tend to be richer in antioxidants.”

Antioxidants are important because they help to reduce some of the risk of damage to DNA, which is associated with cancer progression.

Kelly led a study few years ago, where researchers looked at the foods people were consuming. “Based on questionnaires we got back about the foods kids with cancer were eating, the only fruits and vegetables on the list of most frequently consumed foods were French fries and orange juice.

“There wasn’t what we would consider to be a healthy fruit or vegetable on the top 10 list,” she added. “We generally emphasize, not just for cancer patients but for everybody — vegetables, fruits and fiber.”

She suggests opting for cereals based on oats, barley and bran rather than some of the sugar-sweetened cereals. In addition, use breads with whole grain, stone-ground flour or sourdough rather than breads with white flour. Kelly also suggests reducing the amount of potatoes and white rice.

3. A healthy and balanced diet is important not just for prevention but also for improving tolerance to chemotherapy among patients with cancer.

In a study Kelly conducted looking at nutrition status in children with leukemia, she found that it really wasn’t a single nutrient that protected the patients, but a diet rich in antioxidants reduced their risk of developing infection and other toxicities from the treatment.

4. It’s not just about food; you’ve got to move too.

Exercise is free medication. Almost every health ailment can either be linked to not exercising or can be improved because of it.

“Staying active is a great way to make sure you’re reaping the benefits of your healthy choices when it comes to the food you eat,” said Kelly.

5. Getting the whole family behind healthy eating is really important.

And no one should view healthy eating as a diet; it’s not about calorie restriction, it’s about better choices. “Cooking together as a family can be a great way to do this,” said Kelly, “Even if you start with baby steps, like committing to eating right for one day a week, you can really make a difference and start on a path to eating better and feeling better.”