When I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I knew instinctively that I had to commit to a diet change. Only which diet? Searching online yielded only contradictory results. Eat this. Don’t eat that. And then, just one click away, totally opposite view. My search for the best colon cancer diet was long and arduous. I’ll share my findings here.
My Nutritional Background
Growing up in Poland, there was little to no talk of diets, nutritional fads, or fasting methods. We ate what was there to eat, usually only seasonal stuff: fresh veggies and herbs during summer months, root vegetables, tubers, and dried legumes in the winter. There was even a tradition to pull one’s ear the first time a new spring veggie or fruit would be eaten, first strawberry, first tomato, etc., for good luck and abundance during the summer.
Ancestral Foods and Practices
There was a lot of canning since, during wintertime, there really wasn’t much access to fruit or vegetable. It was unheard of to be eating anything from another part of the world. Communist Poland was rarely importing any foods and even if it did, it was only from other communist countries, like occasional oranges or bananas from Cuba.
We ate animal products when they were available. During the worst eeconomic crisis of the 1980s, meat was rationed and even then rarely avalaible. If you were lucky, had a large enough freezer, and knew a farmer who was raising livestock, you could buy a whole pig and have it made into sausages, ham, and meat portions to last you for a year.
Dealing with Shortages
My parents did it once during the Martial Law in the dog days of the communist rule. My dad was transporting the goods in his little Polish Fiat, filled to the brim with the aromatic smoked meat and sausages. When he got stopped by the police, they sniffed it out right away and he had to bribe them with some ham and vodka to be let go.
In any case, meat in those days was hard to get, but when we got it, it was fresh, made from animals that were pasture-raised, and have known no antibiotics or genetic modification.
No Junk Food
So we ate staples: bread, meat, dairy, potatoes, and veggies and fruit when available or canned. Maybe not the healthiest diet out there, but definitely local and seasonal, and not at all or only minimally processed. That’s what I grew up on, heritage foods.
I guess this is why to this day I am very wary of processed, packaged foods, or “Frankenfoods.” In a supermarket, I generally omit all the aisles and roam only the perimeters where vegetables and fruits, fresh meat and dairy, and other healthier options are located.
Dilemmas of a Health Conscious Foodie
Today I am fortunate to live in California, the state probably most abundant in natural, locally grown and raised food. There is a farmers’ market somewhere around almost every day of the week where I can buy fresh veggies and fruit, farm-raised eggs, olive oil, honey, and other staples.
I also started a small urban garden last year, which has been a moderate success, but I’m hoping for even better yields in the years to come. We have been harvesting lots of cancer-fighting foods: tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, eggplants and squashes, and a true abundance of lettuces and fresh herbs.
What to Eat When You Have Cancer
Only this past year, I managed to relax a bit about what I should and should not eat in order to ward off cancer relapse and to keep my family healthy. (You can read about my 5 year-long journey here).
Especially in regard to the colon cancer diet, there is so much information out there, most of it conflicting or canceling each other out. One day eggs are great, another day they are the spawn of the devil. One week, coffee is the highly prized superfood we’ve been all waiting for. Another week it is a total no-no. One month it’s all about plant-based, preferably vegan diet; another month it is keto or bust.
What is the Best Diet for Cancer Patients
The regular doctors I was dealing with were not much help in regard to nutrition, even though this is such an important way to prevent cancer in the first place and to improve outcomes once someone has cancer already.
Apparently, mainstream medical training includes only a few hours of study of nutrition and cancer-fighting foods. It also seems that dietary recommendations remain on the back burner when it comes to the continuing education of medical professionals.
The oncology department where I was seeing my doctors and receiving treatments would proudly display a bowl of sweets right at the entrance. I understand the idea of trying to emotionally nurture the patients but c’mon, sugar and cancer really don’t mix together. It should be pretty obvious to everyone.
Why is there so little definite information about dietary guidelines for optimal health? A recent op-ed from the New York Times by Dr. Ludwig and Dr. Heymsfield suggests that it is because there are not enough clinical trials about food, due to lack of funds.
Food sources – at least not the natural, real food – cannot be patented and branded and hence made into profits. It is easier to source funding for marketable new medicines because someone will be able to monetize on the results of the trial if it proves successful.
Therefore, a lot of information that can be found online about what to eat for optimal health and wellness is mostly opinion or based on anecdotal evidence.
What most people don’t realize is that food is not just calories; it’s information. It actually contains messages that connect to every cell in the body.Dr. Mark Hyman
Search for Cancer Prevention Diet
I tried many approaches before finding the sweet spot of natural, sensible, sustainable, real food that I find to be serving me and my family best.
Vegan Diet and Juicing for Cancer Prevention
For over two years before my diagnosis, I was strictly vegan. I made my own nut milk, my own vegan cheeses, and I liked it. My family, not so much.
Immediately after the diagnosis, I threw myself into researching dietary guidelines and from the thicket of suggestions in books and online, I chose as the most sensible one a mix between the Gerson juicing diet and the Budwig protocol. We bought a cold press juicer, I ate and drank the recommended foods and drinks. I wanted to keep it up, but when I lost almost half of my body weight, I was literally ordered to eat something more substantial in order to bring up strength for the upcoming chemo.
Keto or Paleo Approach to “Starve” Cancer
At this point, I sought help from a naturopath who put me immediately on a paleo/keto diet: high fat, quality meat and dairy, full fats, zero carbs, very little fruit, and only selected vegetables (nothing starchy). It worked ok, until my surgery which left me without part of the colon and totally changed bathroom habits. The keto approach lacked fiber and was too high in fat for my compromised gut to handle. The diet was not sustainable long term. I had to change it up.
A bit later on, I followed my surgeon’s advice which was to basically eat what my compromised intestines would tolerate. It turns out it was mostly white carbs like white rice, bagels, and bananas.
I was stressing about eating what my gut tolerated, but what my other ‘gut’ was telling me would not keep cancer at bay. I worried that all this carbohydrate content was turning straight into sugar and rising my insulin levels. This seemed like a classic case of “feeding cancer” as one can read a lot (but which is not so simple, here is a link to an interesting read about sugar by Dr. Li).
Hello Mediterranean Diet
Once I finished my treatments, my naturopath advised another change, one that I felt I would stick to and I did: a common-sense, Mediterranean style diet.
It is a mainly plant-based plan but is also encourages a limited consumption of other foods.
- wild-caught fish (salmon, sardines, cod are my favorite)
- occasional organic, grass-fed meat
- occasional eggs
- healthy fats, especially olive oil
- whole or wild grains like brown or wild rice, quinoa, barley, or wheatberry
- sourdough bread (which I make myself).
- most importantly, at the diet’s center is an abundance of fruit and all the veggies I can find here in California.
This Mediterranean eating plan appeals to my taste and that of my family. It has positive effects on longevity and health, and it also just seems to be the most sensible approach to healthy eating.
Basically I see it as the plan to EAT REAL FOOD. Also, it allows moderate consumption of red wine which I adore on occasion! And, it calls for mindful eating, spending time with family and friends over food preparation and consumption, and celebrating the rituals around food.
General Diet for Cancer Patients
Here are some general tips, adapted from the Mayo Clinic website:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least 7 servings a day of fruit and vegetables.
- Opt for whole grains. Switch to whole-grain bread, cereal and pasta. Try new grains like Kamut or Farro.
- Use healthy fats. Try olive oil as a replacement for butter when cooking. Instead of putting butter or margarine on bread, try dipping it in olive oil.
- Eat more seafood. Eat fish twice a week but avoid deep-fried fish.
- Reduce meat consumption, especially red meat. Substitute fish, poultry, or beans for meat. If you eat meat, make sure it’s lean, antibiotic-free, and keep portions small.
- Enjoy limited amounts of dairy. Eat low-fat Greek or plain yogurt and small amounts of a variety of cheeses. No sweet yogurt (those are sugar bombs); it’s better to get plain yogurt and sweeten it with honey or maple syrup or stevia.
- Spice it up. Herbs and spices boost flavors.
Cancer Fighting Foods
Probably the soundest advice I found in books so far has been in Dr. William Li’s Eat to Beat Disease. Unlike a typical cookbook writer, Dr. Li explains the science of healing and prevention of disease by utilizing food to actively boost health. He specifically discusses foods that help with regulating processes in our bodies that help to prevent disease: Angiogenesis, Regeneration, Microbiome, DNA Protection, and Immunity. It’s a great read for anyone trying to get healthy and to ward of disease.
How are you finding the balance between healthy and palatable in your search for the best cancer-fighting diet? How do you decide on what to eat and what not to eat? I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a note.