Food and cancer Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

These FAQs will be regularly updated, so keep checking in for new information, or call 13 11 20 with any nutrition or dietary queries.

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Alkaline food - can an alkaline diet cure cancer?

Some studies have shown that acidic environments help cancer cells grow so it has been suggested that creating an alkaline environment will stop the growth of cancer. These studies have looked at cells in a petri dish so don’t represent what actually happens in your body. 

Your body regulates the acid/base balance in your blood within very tight limits. The pH of your body is slightly alkaline, and any shifts from the normal pH range are quickly dealt with by your body’s systems. Some foods can change the pH of your urine, for example meat can make it more acidic and fruit and vegetables can make it more alkaline. Changing the pH of your urine is just one of the ways your body keeps your overall blood pH within the narrow range it needs to be at. There are no foods or special products (e.g. alkaline water or alkalising greens) that can change the pH of your blood.

Further reading:

Consumer friendly

Cooking - does cooking affect the nutritional value of fruit and vegetables?

Yes. Different cooking techniques affect different nutrients and compounds in different ways. This is why it is important to eat a wide range of foods prepared in different ways.

For example, vitamin C is sensitive to heat, so raw fruit and vegetables have the highest amount of vitamin C. Some nutrients (like vitamin C and B vitamins) are water soluble so move out of the food and into the cooking water if boiled. Steaming or microwaving fruit and vegetables uses less water so results in less loss of these nutrients. Some compounds (like lycopene in tomatoes) become more available to our bodies when cooked. 

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Dodgy diets - how do I spot a dodgy diet?

Some people claim that certain diets can cure cancer. This is not true. No special foods or diets have been scientifically proven to prevent or cure cancer. Here are some red flags to help spot a diet that may be dangerous to your health.
Does the diet

  1. Exclude a whole food group?
  2. Include a large amount of a specific food?
  3. Cost a lot of money?
  4. Take a lot of time to prepare?
  5. Result in unwanted weight loss during treatment?
  6. Prevent you from enjoying social occasions?
  7. Include special supplements?

If you said yes to one or more of these red flags, it might be time to reassess if this is right for you. Discuss the diet with your treating team or Cancer Council nurse.

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Freezing food - can freezing food give you cancer?

There is no evidence to suggest that frozen foods cause cancer. Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh, as modern freezing techniques lock in the nutrients at the time of harvesting. Frozen fruit and vegetables are a cheap and convenient way of getting the recommended two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables each day.

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Ketogenic diet

A ketogenic diet is one that contains no carbohydrates (your body’s preferred source of fuel). When there is no carbohydrate, your body can turn fat into ketones which are then used as fuel. There is interest in this diet for cancer because some animal studies have found an effect on the growth of glioma (a kind of brain cancer) cells.

There is not currently good evidence that a ketogenic diet is helpful for humans with cancer. There is also a high risk of malnutrition when following such a strict diet. Getting enough fibre, vitamins and minerals can be difficult, and following a strict ketogenic diet can be stressful and expensive. Many healthy foods like wholegrains, some vegetables, fruit and dairy are all excluded. People report headaches, constipation, diarrhoea and nausea when trying this diet. Medical supervision is recommended on this kind of diet to ensure balance and minimise side effects. Speak to your doctor or an accredited practising dietitian if you’re interested in trying it.

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Laetrile/ amygdalin/ B17

This is a chemical that the body converts into cyanide. It has been researched since the 1950’s and there is no good quality evidence that it can treat any cancer. The sale of raw apricot kernels (high in laetrile) has been banned in Australia and New Zealand because it can be very dangerous to health.

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‘Nutribullet’ or blitzer  - is it a good idea for me to use a ‘Nutribullet’ or blitzer to make juices and smoothies? Will it have an effect on the nutritional value of my food?

For most people it is more beneficial to eat whole fruit and vegetables and drink water than to drink a lot of juice. Juices and smoothies can, however, play a role in a healthy diet and can be useful if people are struggling to eat enough healthy foods. Sometimes it is easier to drink a smoothie than eat a meal. Here are a few things to keep in mind if someone is thinking about using smoothies or juices.

  • Most juices contain hardly any fibre. This is one of the most beneficial parts of fruit and vegetables. Blitzing (rather than juicing) is better for this reason.
  • Blitzing food in a high-powered blender can decrease the fibre content. This means that some of the effects on digestion will be different to if you’re eating the whole food
  • It can be very easy to drink a lot of juice, and therefore a lot of excess sugar and kilojoules
  • Replacing meals with juices or smoothies may lead to unwanted weight loss
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Red meat - does eating red meat give you cancer?

Eating red meat, and particularly processed meat (cured with preservatives and additives) is associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer. Lean red meat is however a good source of iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein. To balance the risk and benefits of eating red and processed meats Cancer Council recommends

  • Avoiding processed meats like bacon, ham, salami and prosciutto
  • Only eating moderate amounts (less than 500g per week) of red meat
  • Try lentils, beans, tofu, fish, eggs and chicken instead of red meat

Further reading: Red meat, processed meat and cancer (Cancer Council NSW) 

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Soy foods - do soy foods increase your risk of developing or recovering from breast cancer?

Soy products contain plant compounds called isoflavones that can act like weak oestrogen in the body. As oestrogen is linked to breast cancer, there have been concerns that eating soy foods may affect your risk of developing or recovering from breast cancer.

A number of studies have investigated the link between soy consumption and breast cancer. Most studies have not found a link between soy and the risk of developing breast cancer, while some studies have found that people who eat more soy are less likely to develop breast cancer.

Research also suggests that women diagnosed with breast cancer who consume soy products have a reduced risk of mortality and breast cancer recurrence, with this decreased risk seen in both ER+ and ER– breast cancers. However more studies are needed in this area to fully clarify the link.

Taking into consideration the current evidence, it is recommended that people diagnosed with breast cancer who already consume soy foods as part of their normal diet should continue to do so. The evidence is not currently strong enough to suggest that people who don’t normally consume soy foods should start. Avoid taking soy or isoflavone supplements as it is not clear if these products are safe for women with breast cancer.

Further reading:

Consumer friendly

Research articles

Sugar and cancer

All the cells in our body need fuel to function, multiply and grow. Sugar (or glucose) is one of these sources of fuel. Cancer cells need a lot of fuel (because they multiply so quickly). They also need other nutrients like protein and vitamins. Cancer cells prefer glucose, but they can use other energy sources too. A sugar-free diet doesn’t starve cancer cells of fuel, and can put people at risk of starving their healthy cells too.
We would all benefit from eating less sugar though! All people should aim to eat mostly foods from the five core food groups (fruit and vegetables, grains and cereals, meat and alternatives and dairy and alternatives). Junk foods (including high-sugar food and drink) should be limited because they don’t provide us with the nutrients we need and they do contain a lot of fuel (energy, kilojoules, or calories). Having more fuel than we need over a long time leads to weight gain. Being overweight is linked to 13 cancers. So although sugar is not directly linked to cancer, having too much sugar can increase the risk of cancer if it contributes to overweight.

Further reading

Superfoods that cure cancer

There is no scientific evidence that any specific foods can cure cancer. Be very wary of products that make this claim. If there’s something you’d like to try, carefully weigh up the risks and benefits, including the cost (money and time) and whether it is replacing nutritious foods.

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Supplements - can supplements cure cancer?

There is not currently evidence that nutritional supplements can prevent or cure any type of cancer. Be very cautious of anyone who is making such a claim. Many supplements do no harm, and may provide a benefit (even if this benefit is around feeling like you’re doing something good for yourself). However, some supplements can interfere with cancer treatment so it’s very important that your treatment team knows what you’re taking (including natural supplements).

To find out the potential risks and benefits of specific supplements, speak to your treating team. Trustworthy websites include Cancer Council, government websites (usually have “.gov.au” at the end) and universities. Cancer Research UK, International Agency for Research into Cancer and World Cancer Research Fund are also good sources of information (but might not always be relevant as they are not Australian).

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Vegan diet

A properly managed vegan diet can be healthy, but it does require effort and expertise to reduce the risk of malnutrition and unwanted weight-loss during treatment. Anyone considering a vegan diet should speak to an accredited practising dietitian to make sure they’re getting all the nutrients they need.

There is no evidence that following a vegan diet directly reduces your cancer risk. However, some of the features of a vegan diet are the same as the diet recommendations to reduce your risk of cancer  

  • Eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains – these are high in fibre which reduces the risk of bowel cancer. 
  • Avoiding processed meat – processed meat is linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer
  • Limit red meat – a diet high in red meat is linked to a an increased risk of bowel cancer
  • Eating a plant-based diet may help to maintain a healthy weight. Being above a healthy weight is associated with an increased risk of 13 cancers. For more information, please visit the LiveLighter site.

Further reading:

 

 

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Vegetables - what tips do you have for eating more veggies?

Only 5% of Australian adults are eating enough vegetables. Try our top tips to get more on your plate

  • Add vegies to breakfast. Try avocado or baked beans on toast, add mushrooms to an omelette or grated carrot to your porridge
  • Try vegie sticks and dip as your go-to snack
  • Bulk up mince dishes by adding a tin of lentils and grated zucchini
  • Always include a side salad or cooked vegies with dinner
  • Try a vegetarian meal at least once a week   

Visit LiveLighter for more information, recipes and practical tips about healthy eating.

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Vitamin C - high dose

High doses of vitamin C (either in a tablet for or injected) have not been shown to

  • Reduce cancer risk
  • Treat cancer or
  • Reduce the side effects of cancer or cancer treatment

High dose vitamin C can interfere with some treatments. It’s very important o let your treating team know if you are thinking of trying this.

Further reading

•    Consumer friendly :

 

 

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