Help At Your Fingertips

The truth about nutrition for cancer patients

Cancer patients may become extremely concerned about their diet. What should they eat to boost recovery or reduce their risk of getting the disease again?

In the process, they may stay away from certain types of food.

But these may be misguided ideas or hearsay. Adhering to such beliefs may hamper their recovery.

Ms Esther Lin, a senior dietitian from the National University Hospital and the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore, rounds up six points.

Look at the bigger picture instead - for instance, maintaining a healthy weight. Studies have shown that being overweight raises one's risk of cancer, such as that of the breast, colon, kidney and pancreas.

SAY 'NO' TO PROCESSED MEAT, BUT EAT LEAN MEAT IN MODERATION

Recently, the World Health Organisation reported that processed meat, such as bacon, sausages, ham and canned meat, is carcinogenic. It also mentioned that red meat is probably carcinogenic too.

While we should minimise our intake of processed meat, red meat does provide vital nutrients. They include essential amino acids, iron and vitamin B12.

Lean meat, consumed in moderation, can be incorporated as part of a healthy diet. A guideline is to have a palm-sized serving two or three times a week.

SUGARS WON'T 'FEED' CANCER CELLS

Some people may restrict their sugar intake in the belief that it provides energy or nutrients for cancer cells to proliferate.

However, avoiding sugars does not starve the cancer cells. All cells - both healthy and cancerous - use glucose for energy.

Glucose is obtained from digesting carbohydrates like sugar. It is broken down into glucose, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream and supplied to cells.

Even if the body is deprived of glucose from food sources, it will find other ways to make this essential fuel - namely, from protein and fat.

This means the body will break down muscle and fat stores, which may lead to weight loss, fatigue and functional decline.

Therefore, patients should not avoid carbohydrates, especially before and during treatment.

EAT MORE, NOT LESS

The disease and treatment can result in an increased breakdown and use of protein and fat by the body. As a result, cancer patients often have higher calorie and protein needs, and should not slash their diet as they need optimum nutrition to help them through this period.

ALKALINE OR ACIDIC DIET?

Some people believe that cancer thrives in an acidic environment. So they may try to eat more alkaline foods and less acidic ones.

But doing so will not alter the body to an alkaline environment - it is impossible to change blood pH beyond its normal range.

If there is any shift in the acid-base balance, the body automatically corrects it.

ANTI-OXIDANT PILLS NOT A CURE-ALL

Whole foods that are rich in anti-oxidants, such as fruit and vegetables, have been shown to be beneficial in reducing the risk of some types of cancer. Anti-oxidants are substances that protect cells from oxidative damage.

However, taking anti-oxidants in concentrated forms, such as supplements, has not been shown to be beneficial in this regard.

In fact, for people undergoing cancer treatment, such supplements may interact with the metabolism of the drugs, making them less effective.

DON'T FOCUS ON A SPECIFIC FOOD

Look at the bigger picture instead - for instance, maintaining a healthy weight.

Studies have shown that being overweight raises one's risk of cancer, such as that of the breast, colon, kidney and pancreas.

Also, avoid drastic changes. One should focus on obtaining adequate calories and protein.

For instance, patients can boost the calorie, protein and nutritional content of their meals by adding unsaturated oil, eggs, milk, tofu or cheese.

Ensuring that the food's texture is of a softer consistency can make chewing and swallowing easier for the person too.

Poon Chian Hui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'The truth about nutrition for cancer patients'. Print Edition | Subscribe