While there is no “magic pill” to help cure or even prevent cancer, oncology dietitian Bridget Bennett is a “huge fan” of getting vitamins and other beneficial nutrients from fruits and vegetables.
Bennett, who sees patients at Norwalk Hospital’s Whittingham Cancer Center, spoke about the benefits of nutrition at a meeting of the Breast Cancer Survivors Support Group on March 28 at Wilton Library. The group meets there monthly and has occasional speakers.
She emphasized her belief with a handout that showed a “model plate for a cancer preventive diet” that was two-thirds vegetables, fruits and whole grains and one-third or less of animal protein.
One of the questions asked of Bennett had to do with prebiotics and probiotics, with prebiotics being a “trendy topic right now,” she said.
A probiotic is a bacteria, most often found in foods like yogurt and kefir and other fermented foods.
“These are good bacteria that live in your gut, in your large intestine and sometimes in your small intestine and they’re very beneficial for good digestion. They help digest things so they’re absorbed better,” she said. Good digestion, she said, is essential to a healthy body.
Antibiotics will wipe out the probiotics in a person’s body, and so they need to be replaced.
Kefir, which is essentially drinkable yogurt, appears to have more probiotics than any other food source. People who cannot tolerate or choose not to eat dairy products can get probiotics from other fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi or tempeh.
Prebiotics are indigestible carbohydrates that probiotics feed on. They are in foods like bananas, the onion-garlic-leek family, whole wheat foods, asparagus and artichokes.
“I have a feeling they are in a lot more foods than we looked at because this is fairly new,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be complicated,” she said. “It’s more like, hey, you eat a diet with whole grains and onions, garlic and fruits and vegetables and some fermented foods, you are probably in good shape.
“It just goes back to the plant-based diet.”
There was not a lot of new information on tamoxifen, she said, although information has surfaced that grapefruit juice and tangerines might decrease tamoxifen’s effectiveness.
There was a question on the benefits of certain vitamins such a C, D, as well as CoQ10. She said yes, especially to vitamin D and she would add in calcium to prevent bone loss. All women, Bennett said, unless they are getting their calcium and vitamin D requirements from food, should take a supplement.
She advised survivors should get tested for for their vitamin levels, which involves a simple blood test.
“In many cancers, not just breast, we see a low level of vitamin D. I don’t know if it’s cause and effect … but certainly, people who have been diagnosed tend to have low D,” she said, adding that, “Women with a higher D level tend to do better from an overall disease standpoint.”
Depending on how low someone’s level is, they can be given a therapeutic dose to raise it. A standard dose of vitamin D is 1,000 to 2,000 i.u., but she warned that vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that stays in the body, so there can be toxicity at too high a level.
Unlike vitamin D, vitamin C is water soluble and excess amounts get excreted from the body. Adequate amounts can be absorbed through plentiful amounts of colorful fruits and vegetables. Too much can cause kidney stones.
The problem with calcium is women stop producing bone around age 25. After that, if women do not consume 1,200 to 1,500 mg of calcium a day, it will slowly leach out of the bones to maintain adequate blood levels.
“You want to get more than half of your needs from a good source of calcium,” Bennett said. Calcium-rich foods include yogurt, milk, cheese, and calcium-fortified juice and nut milks. Vegetables also have it but because they are filled with fiber, the absorption might not be very good.
Other ways to keep bones healthy are exercise and weight-bearing activities.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a substance that helps convert food into energy and is found in almost every cell in the body. It is also found in meats, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables. An antioxidant, it might be diminished in people who have cancer, Bennett said. But it interacts with certain medications including statins, blood thinners, blood pressure medications.
Plant estrogens, such as those found in soy, do not behave like human estrogen, Bennett said. A handout she provided indicated two large trials in the U.S. and one in China showed no increase in breast cancer recurrence or death in women who ate a larger amount of soy compared to those who ate very little. In some studies there was a trend to fewer recurrences. Indications are, the handout said, that there is not an increased risk in eating soy after a history of breast cancer.
Sugars and fats
Fat has been negatively correlated with breast cancer, Bennett said. For survivorship, less fat is better.
“Obviously you will have a little bit of fat occurring in most meals — you eat an egg, there’s a little bit of fat in that, you have a little butter, fat in that, avocado, olive oil, so you’re not going to have fat-free repertoire. … you need some, but there are good ones and not-so-good ones.”
On the negative side are saturated fats such as those found in meats “but a better culprit to avoid in terms of saturated fats is processed food,” she said, including cookies, cakes, and other items made with partially hydrogenated fats.
Omega 3 fatty acids like those found in fish are beneficial as well. All fish have omega 3, she said, as well as nuts and seeds.
Coconut seems to be OK, she said. It is liquid when it gets pressed, but is solid when it is cold, however, it is never chemically altered. Bennett would classify it as a “good fat.
Three strategies for cancer prevention:
- Eat mostly plant-based foods, which are loaded with protective nutrients.
- Be physically active.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
The support group is organized by Nina Marino. For information, email [email protected].