The program’s heart is selecting the proper foods to eat during chemotherapy. There is so much misinformation about what foods will promote healing and which will not. Even prestigious clinics and famous cancer institutes often encourage cancer patients to eat the “unrestricted diet” described earlier. I did a tremendous amount of research on the chemistry of foods for this section. I found “the usual suspects” that stand in the way of healing—sugar, mostly, and foods that turn to sugar or act like sugar once they are ingested—and a few surprises, such as the tremendous healing qualities of simple green tea, ginger, cayenne pepper, and other natural herbs and spices. These dietary recommendations are grounded on the latest nutritional studies and the cutting-edge research of medical scientists working to heal both cancer and the effects of chemo with what we eat.
Step 1: Understanding the Chemo Diet
Of all the guidelines put forth to help cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, probably none are as full of confusion, contradiction, misunderstanding, and controversy as what to eat (food) and what to take (supplements). In this step, I will outline what I believe is the most practical, sensible, and nutritionally and medically sound plan for the chemo diet. Virtually all the experts in the chemistry of foods, dismissing the fringe elements on both extremes, agree on what is set out here. The main thrust of these recommendations is to change the chemical environment within the body from a cancer-encouraging setting to a non-cancer-encouraging one.
Step 2: Foods to Avoid
First, here are the foods that should be avoided. To stay healthy and lessen the side effects of chemotherapy, stay away from the food list in the following pages.
- Alcohol Most animal protein
- All processed foods, Pastries, cookies, pasta, wheat
- Anything with artificial color or flavor added. Some oils: canola, corn, soy, palm, peanut, vegetable
- Deli meats and cheeses, Soybeans, and soy
- Caffeine products Dairy
- Microwaved food and beverages Sugar, artificial sweeteners
Alcohol: The liver processes all toxins in our body, including the chemicals involved in chemotherapy. By burdening liver function, alcohol can interfere with the liver’s ability to metabolize those toxins effectively. Cara Anselmo, clinical dietitian at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, says it’s essential to avoid alcohol during chemotherapy because alcohol can cause undue stress on the liver and make it harder to process chemo drugs. Alcohol can also worsen nausea or other gastrointestinal side effects.
All processed foods / Anything with artificial color or flavor added / Deli meats and cheeses: Processed foods have been altered from their natural state, usually for convenience. The methods used include canning, freezing, refrigeration, dehydration, and aseptic (sterilization) processing. Ingredients found in processed foods contain colorants, emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, stabilizers, texturizers, and even bleach products, not to mention a high content of salt, sugar, and fat—all of which are counterproductive to staying healthy during chemotreatment. According to the World Health Organization, the amounts of processed foods consumed are responsible for increasing obesity, heart disease, and cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy, it is vital to stay far away from the deli counter at supermarkets, avoiding bacon, sausages, ham, and lunch meats, including the self-proclaimed “healthy” varieties.
Caffeine: Caffeine dehydrates, which is just what should not happen during chemo. Dehydration contributes to the irritation of the digestive system and worsens chemo side effects, such as diarrhea and fatigue. It restricts red blood cells and depletes oxygen, and it is highly acidic. Here, I speak primarily about the caffeine in coffee and some soft drinks, creating a fertile environment for cancer to thrive. Green tea and other teas contain some caffeine, but the health-promoting qualities of green tea significantly far outweigh any potential downsides. (There are approximately 35-45 mg of caffeine in a cup of green tea, compared to over 100 mg in a similar amount of coffee.) Green tea is also high in the amino acid L-theanine, which produces a calming effect and helps in concentration. Studies have found an association between consuming green tea and a reduced risk for several cancers, including skin, breast, lung, colon, and bladder.
Dairy products: “The increase in cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and asthma that has occurred in the Western world over the past century directly correlates with the increase in dairy consumption,” writes Dr. Adam Meade. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, the most comprehensive study of human nutrition, says: “What protein consistently and strongly promoted cancer? Casein, which makes up 87% of cow’s milk protein, promoted all stages of the cancer process. What type of protein did not promote cancer, even at high levels of intake? The safe proteins were from plants.” Dairy products are milk (including skim, low-fat, and powdered milk), cheese, cottage cheese, cream cheese, butter, ghee, ricotta, yogurt, ice cream, gelato, and condensed or evaporated milk. If you have a question about what comprises “dairy,” check the Internet for more complete lists. I consider butter “dairy,” even though it may be technically classified as fat, it is best to keep it out of the chemotherapy diet. Butter substitutes are processed vegetable oil, usually, and therefore are nutritionally unsupportive and to be avoided.
Microwaved food and beverages: The latest research has begun to tip the side of warning against microwaved food and drink. A Spanish study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture noted that 87% of the nutrient value of three cancer-protecting antioxidants (flavonoids, sinapics, and caffeoyl-quinic derivatives) was lost in microwaving. Other studies show that microwaving human breast milk destroys lysozyme, which fights bacterial infections, eliminates vitamin B-12, and converts some trans-amino acids into synthetic substances similar to unhealthy trans-fatty acids. A Russian research team reported that people who ate microwaved food had a statistically higher incidence of stomach and intestinal cancers, digestive disorders, and lymphatic malfunctions, causing immune system degeneration. Indeed, more scientific investigations need to be done on how microwaving changes the molecular structure of foods—and what the implications might be for human health. Meanwhile, I advise cancer patients on chemo to avoid using the microwave oven.
Most animal protein: An up-to-the-minute report in The New York Times cites new research in the Archives of Internal Medicine implicating red meat in the cancer scenario: “Eating red meat is associated with a sharply increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease… and the more of it you eat, the greater the risk.” What is stunning about the findings is that they included the remarkable conclusion that “each daily increase of three ounces of red meat was associated with a 12% greater risk of dying overall, including a 16% greater risk of cardiovascular death and a 10% greater risk of cancer death.” If the meat is processed—such as with bacon, sausages, and deli meats—the risks are even more significant: “20% overall, 21% for cardiovascular disease and 16% for cancer.” To counter that report, Dr. Joseph Mercola says that the research was flawed and misrepresented. His informative website (mercola.com) notes, “Trials that have compared meat-heavy diets against meat-restricted ones have consistently negated the hypothesis that meat causes disease and premature death.
On the contrary, such trials have found that meat-rich diets produce more excellent health results, such as more significant weight loss, less heart disease, and reduced diabetes risk.” But he is talking, remember, about how eating red meat affects healthy bodies. Most new research on beef concerning cancer patients confirms what nutritional scientists have been saying for years, most convincingly in The China Study. For a chemo patient, eating red meat could be a risk that is not worth taking.
Pastries, cookies, pasta, wheat: I am lumping baked goods in with grain because virtually all familiar pastries and cookies start with cereal as the first ingredient. The second ingredient is sugar, another health hazard I will discuss below. Wheat contains the complex carbohydrate amylopectin A, a starch quickly digested by the body. When it enters the bloodstream, it immediately turns to sugar—at a rate more rapid than sugar itself. So when we eat wheat, our bodies respond as if we were eating sugar. As a result, wheat’s blood sugar implication contributes heavily to many common health problems: obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypo- and hyperglycemia, and many other ailments.
Furthermore, wheat contains the protein gluten, which can damage the small intestine’s lining. When that happens, nutrients are absorbed poorly, and unwanted proteins can come into the body—resulting in an overtaxing of the immune system. The New England Journal of Medicine lists fifty-five diseases that can be caused by eating gluten, including osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological disorders, including anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Please note that regular pasta products are made of wheat, so they should be avoided. Rice pasta (noodles) are delicate, of course.
Some oils: The only acceptable oils for the chemotherapy diet are extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and walnut oil. Of these, only olive and coconut oil can be heated in the cooking and food preparation; avocado and walnut oil should be used in their natural, unheated state. Avoid canola oil, palm oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, peanut oil, and soy oil. Canola oil (rapeseed oil) was produced in the 19th century as a lubricant for steam engines; it is one of the first ingredients in commercial bug sprays. Palm oil has been shown to clog arteries. Peanut oil and peanuts should be avoided because peanuts contain many fungi that can interfere with immune system function. Corn, soy, and vegetable oils are the lowest-grade oils; they have no nutritional benefits. Conventional vegetable oil is similar to junk food because it is processed and widely used to prepare junk food. During the production stage, most of the few nutrients it had to begin with are extracted, leaving only the oil. This means that when people consume vegetable oil, they drink useless fat. One of the additional hidden dangers of vegetable oils is that many are genetically modified. Corn, soybean, canola, and cottonseed oils are the top genetically modified vegetable oils in the United States. These have no place in a healthy diet for a cancer patient.
Soybeans and soy products: Dr. Kaayla Daniel, author of the groundbreaking book “The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food,” points to thousands of studies implicating soy in digestive problems, immune-system breakdown, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders—even heart disease and cancer, particularly breast cancer. Dr. Joseph Mercola, citing Dr. Daniel, says, “Ninety-one percent of soy grown in the US is genetically modified (GMO). The genetic modification is done to impart resistance to the toxic herbicide Roundup. While this is meant to increase farming efficiency and provide you with less expensive soy, the downside is that your soy is loaded with this toxic pesticide.” Dr. Daniel adds that “going ‘organic’ does not make soy healthy; it’s just that GMO is worse.” Soybeans and soy products (tofu, soy powder in “health drinks,” soy milk, soy oil) are difficult to avoid since soy is now an ingredient in so many processed foods, such as chocolate, cookies, salad dressings, soups, sauces, margarine, and vegetarian meat substitutes. But a cancer patient on chemotherapy must stay away from soy because it compromises the immune system—exactly what must not happen during cancer treatment. I advise you to get in the habit of reading ingredient lists and to be mainly on the lookout for hidden soy in foods. Fermented soy products such as natto, tempeh, and soy sauce are acceptable but should be eaten in moderation because of their high acid content.
Sweet Fruits: Avoid all sweet fruits, such as mangos, nectarines, oranges, peaches, yellow apples, tangerines, grapes, honeydew, figs, plums, and dates. Their high glycemic content makes them not a good choice in a diet for anyone undergoing chemotherapy. Sweet fruit (fresh or dried) turns into instant energy for all cells, including cancer cells. It is best to keep all sugar-related foods out of the diet. One quick note: Although a dried fruit, raisins are considered a “lesser evil” and may be used sparingly.
Sugar, artificial sweeteners: Volumes have been written about the health dangers of eating sugar. I will only make some points here, relating them to cancer treatment. By the way, I include all artificial sweeteners here because they act exactly like sugar in the body. When we eat sugar, the pancreas is stimulated to secrete insulin to drop blood sugar levels. The result is a rapid fluctuation of blood-sugar levels, which places great stress on the body. Sugar raises the insulin level in the body, inhibiting the release of growth hormones, which depresses the immune system. Pushing the immune system must be avoided at all costs for someone coping with cancer and chemotherapy. The sugar-insulin-immune system connection is the primary reason to remove sugar (including hidden sugars in processed foods) entirely from the diet. But there is more. Sugar can:
- Contribute to anxiety, depression, and concentration difficulties.
- Upset the body’s mineral balance.
- Cause kidney damage.
- Contribute to a weakened defense against bacterial infection.
- Increase the amount of fat in the liver, the body’s main organ for detoxing dead cancer cells and chemo chemicals.
- It causes liver cells to divide, increasing the size of the liver. Cancer cells are nourished primarily on sugar. We use PET scans that measure where radioactive sugar accumulates to detect where a tumor may be present in the body. I could go on and on with the list. The bottom line of my advice goes back to the nutritional wisdom we have been living with for a hundred years, sometimes forgotten in modern times: sugar feeds cancer. A diet for someone on chemotherapy should include the food types in the proportions shown in the chart.
Diet Menu Planner
Foods to Enjoy:
|VEGETABLES||FRUITS||MILKS||NUTS, SEEDS & OILS||GRAINS||SPICES & HERBS|
|Artichokes||Apples, green||Almond Milk (unsweetened)||Almonds||Brown rice||Basil|
|Asparagus||Blackberries||Oat Milk||Cashews||Quinoa||Cayenne pepper|
|Arugula||Blueberries||Chia seeds||Chili peppers|
|Avocados||Boysenberries||Coconut oil, organic||Cilantro/coriander seeds|
|Bell pepper, red & yellow||Lemon/limes||Extra virgin olive oil||Cinnamon, ground|
|Bok choy||Pomegranates||Cumin seeds|
|Dark leafy greens||Rosemary|
Neutral or Less Beneficial:
|VEGETABLES||FRUITS||NUTS, SEEDS & OILS||GRAINS||SPICES & HERBS|
|Bell pepper, green||Apricots||Sesame seeds||Buckwheat||Black pepper|
|Cucumbers||Cranberries||Rye||BEANS & LEGUMES|
|Green beans||Grapefruit||Black beans|
|Mustard/turnip greens||Strawberries||Mustard seeds|
Foods to Avoid:
|VEGETABLES||FRUITS||MILKS||NUTS, SEEDS & OILS||GRAINS||SPICES & HERBS||BEANS & LEGUMES||SEAFOOD||EGGS & MILK||POULTRY & LEAN MEATS||GRAIN|
|Bell pepper, green||Garlic||Chicken||Lamb (if anemic)|
|NUTS, SEEDS & OILS|
|SPICES & HERBS|
|BEANS & LEGUMES|
|EGGS & MILK||POULTRY & LEAN MEATS||GRAIN|
Note: You will immediately see that the diet I consider most beneficial for a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy is almost entirely plant-based. I have drawn these recommendations from recent nutritional studies, foremost among them the revolutionary The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. When it came out, The New York Times called it the “Grand Prix of epidemiology” because of the length and breadth of its scope: it examined more than 350 variables of health and nutrition with surveys from 6,500 adults in more than 2,500 counties across China and Taiwan. The study shows that a low-protein, low-glycemic, plant-based diet is best for preventing and recovering from cancer.
The China Study is controversial, nonetheless, with its critics calling some of the research into question, even flawed by an enthusiasm to present plant-based eating in the best light. They cite the work of pioneering integrative oncologists experimenting with “metabolic typing”— recommending a diet that matches the individual patient’s metabolism, sometimes including red meat. These investigations are also compelling.
Still, Campbell’s findings in his twenty-year study seem sensible. I follow these guidelines as much as possible and recommend them to my clients as a healthy way of eating.
Additional Things to Consider
- Organic, organic, organic: purchase organic varieties of the recommended foods whenever possible.
- As much as possible, eat only “whole foods” with only one ingredient.
- The “well-balanced diet” is a myth perpetrated by people who are ignorant about the chemistry of foods; disregard pie charts and pyramids showing that you need red meat, wheat, and dairy products to stay healthy.
- Cooking vegetables: Steam, don’t boil or fry. Boiling water leaches nutrients from vegetables, and heat destroys nutrients in oil.
- Enjoy your food, eat slowly for good digestion and assimilation, and feel the life-giving nutrients you take into your body.
- Grow your own: sprouts (one of the most nutritious foods you can eat) and wheatgrass (also very healthy) are easy to grow and harvest.