An alarming fact: according to the NHS, one in two people will develop a form of cancer in their lifetime. Of course there are many healthy lifestyle habits that can improve our chances of avoiding the big C, and jostling for first position is nutrition.
Dionne Detraz is a highly respected Integrative Cancer Nutritionist and author of the bestseller, ‘The Cancer Diet Cookbook’. She believes that food can not only help charge our immune system but prevent cancer and support patients both during and after treatment.
From the benefits of fasting and dairy to whether to go vegan or vegetarian, Dionne offers her insight; she also highlights which specific foods to eat and avoid, which supplements may help, and what role Lactoferrin (Leapfrog’s hero ingredient) may also play as an anti-cancer agent.
Can you tell us about your own journey towards healthy eating?
I did not always eat healthily. I grew up in the 80’s and both of my parents worked, so it was very much convenient and processed fast foods. My friends would come to our house because we had all the Twinkies, Oreos, all the sugary cereals and the fridge in the garage filled with sodas. Obviously, as a kid, you can get away with some of that but as you get older you start to notice it in your body. I had a lot of allergies, horrible acne, and issues with my menstrual cycle.
At university, I began to realise that diet had something to do with all of this. I first started experimenting on myself and then realising that I could actually make changes in my body by eating differently. So that led me to more holistic alternative providers who were then able to guide me further with supplements to more complex ideas. Before that, I wanted to be a sports medicine doctor as I had been an athlete as a kid. Then I had this personal journey. I became fascinated by nutrition, supplements, and natural healing, and it completely shifted my studies and focus.
You’ve been supporting people through their cancer journey for over a decade. What do you think is the most common misconception about nutrition and its relation to cancer?
Unfortunately it’s still standard in the oncology world that the diet doesn’t really matter – plenty of doctors think it may help, but it’s not that important. Particularly once somebody is diagnosed with cancer, then it’s the furthest thing from their mind and it becomes all about treatment: “Don’t worry about your diet, just eat what sounds good, keep your weight on.” I think they do care about food in the sense of calories – they don’t want you to lose weight during treatment – but it’s less that there could be nutrients in the food that may help you heal.
When I was working in a hospital, I started with the cancer clinic. They were giving cookies, chips and treats during the infusion for people to keep their energy up and to not feel nauseous. I had to work with the nurses and change that paradigm. It’s a big problem because patients are not being given any guidance in a traditional clinical setting, which is a shame.
How can the right diet help you with your cancer recovery?
Whether you are doing treatment or not, the right diet is going to be helpful. We can choose foods that actually can help support the immune system, that can help to turn off cancer genes, the cell cycle and reproduction. We can have this influence through our diet.
I think that what we eat can either fuel cancer – keep it happy, thriving and growing – or we can help to starve cancer by changing the environment so the food we eat makes it less hospitable for cancer to grow.
Outside of our emotional wellness and stress, diet has the biggest role to play in genetic expression. Our lifestyle and our diet plays a big role in our genes and what is being expressed. So this is my goal: to teach people that they do have a lot of control over this journey by being mindful in their food choices.
So which ones are the food that needs to be absolutely avoided when diagnosed with cancer?
The one that I always have people start with is the processed stuff (that I was eating as a kid). It needs to go, it’s not even food. It’s not providing anything helpful other than maybe calories but we could argue that that’s probably not needed in many cases. So, all the processed packages, sugary hydrogenated fats - that whole category of food - is just not helpful. I am not an all or nothing person – I feel that the body can get what it needs from 90% of your choices which gives room for some pleasurable fun treats - but I would say as a food category that one should go.
And which foods can help?
Here’s where I think I may be a little bit different than some of the other cancer dietitians out there. For sure plants are our most helpful ally. I think everyone agrees with that so that’s where we start. With a colourful variety of plant, and within the plant world there are certain plants that stand out for their benefits. The family of the cruciferous veggies is super important against cancer, or the family of alliums such as onions, garlic and leeks. I typically give my clients a list of ten of what I believe are the most powerful anticancer plant species, like turmeric and ginger, and all the colourful species.
But I don’t think people need to be vegan or even vegetarian to prevent or to heal from cancer. I do think that most of what they are eating should come from plants, but when someone is moving through a cancer journey often the level of proteins and nutrients that they need to help their body heal and repair is best served with animal food. I try to moderate some of the animal protein choices and make it as high quality as possible. There is a big difference between an organic grass-fed steak and a processed, cured hotdog; those are completely different foods. So, definitely some education around the quality of animal food, but I think that it can serve a purpose particularly once you have cancer and you are trying to heal.
What about dairy?
I know this is also a little controversial in my field. With people who are recovering from hormonally driven cancers, like breast or prostate, often times within the nutrition world clients are told to cut out dairy because there is fear that it will stimulate growth particularly within reproductive organs. There is some research that suggests that it may be true, even with good quality sources, but I don’t think there is enough research to show that it’s actually stimulating cancer. I think that dairy can be a very good source for other important nutrients, but the quality matters. If it is commercially raised dairy then it’s not very healthy – it’s going to be more inflammatory and it’s not going to have as good of a fat profile. It’s not going to have any omega 3 fats, while grass-fed milk does. So again, I don’t tell people they have to cut it out but we definitely have a conversation about the quality, where they are getting it from and then how much of it is in their diet.
Would dairy count as part of the 10% indulgence we were discussing earlier?
I think of it as part of the 90%, which comes from real, whole food. The 10% is, for example desserts, champagne or chips. Out of the 90%, probably 75% is going to be from plants so that the animal food and the dairy will be in there but not the majority of what you’re eating.
Are there any types of supplements that you would recommend to your clients?
Yes: a lot of them vary depending on what their treatment is, or if they are done with treatment and are recovering or detoxing. There are some that I recommend more often for just the general anticancer benefits. We definitely talk a lot about mushrooms for their immune-modulating and immune-stimulating benefits and they also help to minimize the symptoms of treatment. We talk a lot about turmeric, not only cooking with it but taking it as a supplement for anticancer. Vitamin D is a common one too, because most people are deficient and that has a big anticancer role. We may also talk about omega 3s depending on what somebody has in their diet. The rest is really going vary depending on the client’s specific needs: there may be melatonin, some green tea, or some berberine for example.
And have you heard of Lactoferrin as an anti-cancer agent?
Lactoferrin is something that has been on my radar and I’ve wanted to learn more about it and experiment with it. One of my goals is to tease out the supplements that could be the most beneficial for the widest population of people, and I think that Lactoferrin could be in there.
There have been some studies in both animal cells and human clinical trials now around cancer and Lactoferrin. I think it has a lot of the same benefits as the category of mushrooms, with some great immune-modulating properties.
“Lactoferrin also has cancer-specific properties, such as helping to stop cell division and disrupting the membranes in cancer cells, also encouraging apoptosis, which is cancer cells’ destruction or death”
So I think Lactoferrin definitely holds some promise specifically with cancer and yes, I’m open to experiment with it more this year.
Are there other ways to help our immune system, not related to nutrition?
I am a dietitian so a big part of what I teach is around food, but I am integrative and functionally-minded which means that I’m thinking about the whole person. So, certainly, exercise – having daily movement – is going to help with the immune system. There is also a lot of good research around exercise and cancer too, so specifically in cancer recovery and prevention exercise is important. I have some clients who tell me that even while they are going through treatment and don’t have much energy, if they force themselves to go on even just a ten-minute walk they feel a hundred times better. So we use exercise a lot through the recovery process.
Getting good sleep and stress management techniques both play such an important role in the immune system and in lowering stress hormones in the body. Anything we can do to lower stress in the body is going be very useful. Another thing I do a lot with my clients is fasting. There is a lot of really great research around fasting and different styles of fasting, and how you can use that to help treatment work better and to help you have less side effects from it and also after treatment to prevent recurrence.
Two years ago, you published ‘The Cancer Diet Cookbook’ which was a great success. Could share a recipe with us please?
I think your readers may like my Golden Cauliflower recipe. It highlights cruciferous veggies, turmeric, and coconut oil, all of which have great immune-boosting and anti-cancer benefits.
2 Tbsp raw, organic coconut oil
1 Tbsp ground turmeric or curry powder
1 head cauliflower, cored and cut into small florets
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the oil and turmeric in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cauliflower, salt, and pepper and toss to coat.
2. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the cauliflower starts to brown.
3. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add a few Tbsp of water, and cover. Let it simmer for another 5-10 minutes until the cauliflower is tender
Dionne Detraz publishes regularly on her blog regarding food and its relation to cancer recovery and prevention – www.groundandroot.com