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The Benefits of a Healthy Diet When Fighting Cancer

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Published on September 3, 2015

Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, Director of Integrative Medicine Program, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center discusses diet as it relates to cancer and cancer treatment. He stresses the importance of a healthy diet and how proper nutrition can prevent many diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

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Transcript | The Benefits of a Healthy Diet When Fighting Cancer

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.     

Jack Aiello:

Dr. Cohen, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about diet and lifestyle changes.  People will ask me you’ve been diagnosed for 20 years, what nutritional changes have you made? And I’ll just go this and probably not too many. So can you explain a little bit about diet and nutritional changes?

Dr. Cohen:           

So one of the challenges in the area of diet, exercise, lifestyle is a lot of the evidence that exists on whether something is helpful or harmful or a particular approach helpful or harmful is that it comes from observational studies. So that means that they look at 50,000 Americans. They look at things like what they eat and their weight. And they see look at people who are eating few cruciferous vegetables, these are the broccolis, kale, Brussels sprouts, people who have high BMI have a higher probability of developing multiple myeloma. 

Now, does that mean that that was causal? It doesn’t because, in those sorts of studies, you can’t determine causation.  They’re just these associations. So that becomes a challenge when we want to sit up here and give evidence-based recommendations, which is ideally from the randomized placebo-controlled trial.  Now, when it comes to diet and exercise, however, even though we don’t have a randomized placebo-controlled trial, we know from decades of dietary research what are some basic recommendations that should be followed.

And these are recommendations now that are supported by the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Association for Cancer Research—just to sort of say and show that there’s somewhat of an agreement in this area that the closer you can come to following a plant-based diet, the better.

Now, what does that mean?  That doesn’t mean that you have to be vegan or vegetarian.  But it means that we need to be eating more plants in our diet. And ideally, with somebody who has cancer, although there isn’t, again, the randomized placebo-controlled trials, eating these dark green, cruciferous vegetables we know can be very healthy.  So it essentially means shifting the plate. And the USDA, instead of using the pyramid, now uses a plate.  And they literally take a plate, and they divide it into quadrants. And three-quarters of the plate they say should be plants. 

So half of it is fruits and vegetables, and then maybe another quarter is grains and preferentially whole grains. So our society tends to like things very refined.

And this is good when you’re talking about wine and high-quality chocolate but not when it comes to food. You don’t want refined foods, refined sugar, refined flour.  So we want food in its original whole form is going to be ideal. And I can explain why.  And then we’ve got one-quarter left, and that quarter would be protein. And the recommendation is that some of that protein come from plants.  So what would that be? That would be the legumes, which is all the different beans, nuts and other sources of non-animal protein and then some animal protein as is necessary. Now, it’s important to get the right amount of protein.

So ideally, if your main source of protein right now is from animal products, it’s best to work with a dietary counselor. Those are available in all medical centers. 

And within our integrative medicine center at MD Anderson, we have a dietician who will work with you to shift from primarily animal-based proteins to have it be more of a mix. And we know now from really probably the past five years or so very good evidence saying that this type of dietary approach can help to prevent heart disease, diabetes, and many different forms of cancer and improve outcomes for those with cancer. 

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

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