One of the most common things that people with cancer who try complementary therapies do is make nutritional changes. Some people want to make changes to their diet to help their body cope with the effects of cancer and its treatments, and to give themselves the best chance of recovery.
Many therapies incorporate general dietary advice while some, such as traditional Chinese medicine and ayurvedic medicine, have their own specific approaches to diet. Most doctors and cancer nurses recommend eating a balanced diet. Your doctor, nurse or dietitian can give you advice on healthy eating.
Benefits: Vegetables and fruit contain vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, which are natural substances such as antioxidants that may destroy cancer-causing agents (carcinogens). Cancer Council recommends the Australian Dietary general community guidelines of two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables daily for cancer survivors. Fruit and vegetables are best eaten fresh and whole rather than as a supplement, and consumption of a variety of both cooked and raw vegetables is recommended.
What it is: Naturopathic nutrition is about what you eat and how it affects your health and wellbeing. It promotes the use of whole foods, organic foods and certain food types for different people.
Why use it: For your body to function efficiently, you need to eat a balanced diet of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. You also need vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients found in fresh food. If you are deficient in certain nutrients, you may experience worse side effects from cancer treatment, experience new symptoms and need a longer recovery time.
What to expect: A naturopathic nutritionist develops a treatment plan, which is focused on creating diets from nutrient-rich food rather than medicinal or bodywork. Sometimes supplements are also recommended.
Evidence: There is some clinical evidence that a healthy diet can help people recover from cancer treatment. There is no strong evidence that organic food is better than conventionally-grown food for improving health.
Differences between dietitians and nutritionists
Nutritionists – The term nutritionist refers to both qualified nutrition scientists and naturopathic nutritionists. Some dietitians also call themselves nutritionists.
Nutritionists working in the natural health industry should have at least a diploma of nutrition, or equivalent, from a university or naturopathic college. Those working within a naturopathic framework are usually employed in private practice or in a holistic medical or complementary therapies centre. Practitioners will approach dietary issues differently according to their level of training and qualifications.
Dietitians – To become accredited, dietitians need university qualifications in science, nutrition and dietetics. They modify diets based on scientific evidence to help treat disease symptoms and to get the most out of food without the unnecessary use of supplements. They often work within a conventional medical framework in hospitals, aged care facilities and medical practices.
For cancer patients, a dietitian works out specialised diets, helps with weight issues, and makes sure you are adequately nourished if you have eating difficulties. You may be given supplements if you are unable to meet your nutritional requirements through diet alone.