Long before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was eating what would be considered by many to be a healthy diet. I ate all organic produce (still do). I ate a lot of “whole grains,” lots of legumes, especially soy, and some organic, grass-fed meat. I had long since stopped eating the Standard American Diet with its heavy loads of sugar, transfats and god-knows-what additives in packages. But I felt there was something off with my diet and I would occasionally wonder whether eating what my ancestors ate would be the best approach.
Then, during treatment, doctors and the nutritionist at the treatment center repeatedly told me: “Don’t eat sugar. Sugar feeds cancer.”
“What sugar?” I thought. I wasn’t drinking coke or eating cake and cookies. I never touch alcohol.
During chemo treatment, I ate whatever the heck I wanted. I seemed to crave burritos and ate one almost every day. The combination of carbohydrates and protein kept me satisfied. I also ate a lot of baked potatoes with cottage cheese, applesauce, things that were easy to have on hand.
I started studying nutrition with a focus I had not had since I had become a vegetarian in my teens in the 1970s. Now I had much more information at my disposal, and an even greater motivation.
I really wanted to know, “what is sugar” and how I could avoid it.
My holistic doctor, who’s an expert on nutrition, had for several years been nudging me in the direction of a gluten-free, soy-free and low carbohydrate diet to heal my chronic upset stomach.
About the time I finished chemo, a new book came out: The Whole Foods Guide for Breast Cancer Survivors: A Nutritional Approach to Preventing Recurrence ( by Edward Bauman and Helayne Waldman, New Harbinger Publications, 2012). This book explains for a non-scientific reader what’s so bad about sugar.
I started to read “sugar” in a much broader way.
The authors of this book refer to sugar in the form of glucose. Eating sugar raises glucose levels which raises insulin levels. Increased insulin causes a condition called insulin resistance which then creates inflammation, an environment that fosters the growth of cancer cells. Reducing one’s sugar intake reduces inflammation and slows down cancer cells.
For years, my primary care physician had been sending me for standard blood tests looking for markers for potential heart disease (which both my parents had). Over and over, I showed elevated levels of a marker for inflammation as well as high triglycerides, which are caused by eating too many carbohydrates. She’d tell me to knock off eating so much fruit, and I was unable to. I was addicted to eating fruit and other carbs, especially all the “whole grain” supposedly healthy stuff. I was (and still am) addicted to sugar, albeit in its supposedly healthy forms.
I was also hungry all the time, especially after eating whole grain bread, brown rice, pasta or even a smoothie made with a lot of fruit. I was loading my system with glucose and becoming pre-diabetic.
Now, after reading The Whole Food Guide for Breast Cancer Survivors, I understood that all the organic, whole-grain bread and pasta was sugar nonetheless. The authors of this book don’t recommend eliminating all these glucose-inducing foods, just cutting back.
I was still fixed on the question of “what is sugar,” continued to research it, and stumbled on the increasingly popular paleo nutritional approach.
In a subsequent post, I’ll give a bibliography of the most useful books I’ve found on the theory and practice of paleo nutrition.
The idea is to eat, as close as possible, what our pre-agricultural ancestors ate. Grain and legume-based agriculture is a relatively recent phenomenon in the evolution of the human body. We have not evolved fast enough to be able to handle the overload of grains, legumes and, for many, dairy products, not to mention all the processed junk that fills the grocery stores. That’s why we have an epidemic of diseases that can be alleviated by returning to a whole foods program based on vegetables, animal protein (organic, pastured), seasonal fruit and little to no dairy. The paleo lifestyle also calls for adequate, not excessive, amounts of exercise, lots of quality sleep and stress reduction.
I’m not a medical scientist but this made sense to me.
After chemo and radiation, my holistic doctor suggested that I try going off grains for a month to see how I felt. I quickly lost the weight I had packed on during chemo. I felt energetic. My stomach felt good. My triglyceride and inflammation markers went down. I was no longer hungry all the time. Months into living paleo, I started feeling just fabulous. (I am not strictly “paleo” in that I eat some full-fat dairy products; this is called the “primal” approach.)
I’ll write more about the paleo lifestyle, nutrition, cooking and gardening in future blog posts. I’m not a purist in that I, daily, indulge in high-quality dark chocolate (more on that later.) What I don’t eat, at all, are grains or legumes. I am mindful about not eating a lot of sugary fruit.
I credit paleo/primal nutrition with why I feel so great post-cancer, despite being on a long-term drug treatment that is insufferable for many.
I don’t miss the “foods” I formerly gorged myself on. In fact, much of what I used to eat I now consider unfit for human consumption. I love to cook, food shop and grow vegetables. Living paleo, eating very high quality food, can be expensive. It requires one to plan meals ahead, have a well-stocked kitchen and eat mostly home-cooked food. It’s well worth the effort. I would never go back to my old way of eating.
**Nothing on this blog constitutes medical advice or any other kind of advice. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.