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Dietitians Dish: Nutrition important for those with cancer

By By Stephanie Markman
Nov. 20, 2012 at 5:20 a.m.


Editor's note: This is Part I of a two-part article.

The number of cancer and cancer-related deaths has, fortunately, declined in the past decade. The factor nutrition plays in cancer rates and survival is more than most may care to realize.

The recent annual report to the nation on the status of cancer states, "Increased cancer risk [is] associated with excess weight (overweight or obese) and lack of sufficient physical activity (less than 150 minutes of physical activity per week)."

To find out if you are overweight or obese, you must first find your body mass index. To calculate your BMI, take your weight in pounds, divide by your height in inches, and divide by your height in inches again. Finally, multiply this number by 703. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds and stand 66 inches tall (5 foot 6 inches), then your BMI is 24.2 (150 ÷ 66 ÷ 66 × 703 = 24.2), which is considered healthy.

If your BMI is less than 18.5, you are considered underweight; 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy, 25.0 to 29.9 is overweight and 30.0 or greater is obese. BMI is only an estimate, not a rule; however, it is a helpful tool in gauging whether your weight may be putting you at risk for developing cancer or other diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Nutrition is often an integral part of the quality of life before, during and after a cancer diagnosis. One of the best things you can do before ever being diagnosed with cancer or before treatment starts (besides maintaining a healthy weight) is consuming a diet rich in antioxidants, which are cancer-cell fighting nutrients.

The best sources of antioxidants are fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The fiber in these foods will also help you fill up on fewer calories, essential for maintaining a healthy weight.

During cancer treatment, it is very important to follow the neutropenic diet. This diet helps prevent foodborne illness while your immune system is compromised. To follow the neutropenic diet, wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them - even if they have a skin you will remove, such as an orange.

Avoid foods that cannot be scrubbed clean, such as berries, and be sure to cook meat thoroughly. At this time, don't eat any meats that are still pink.

Keep raw meat and produce completely separate by having a cutting board designated for each food group.

Be sure to wash and sanitize your hands, knives and counter tops before and after cooking.

Defrost meats in the fridge or microwave in order to discourage bacteria growth.

Do not consume any raw fish, shellfish, moldy cheeses, egg yolks or unpasteurized milk, juice or honey.

Avoid purchasing food from bulk bins at the grocery store, buffets, salad bars or any self-serve eateries, as most people do not have the same sanitation priorities.

It is better to be safe than sorry; therefore, when in doubt, don't consume any foods that are past their expiration date or possibly unsanitary; it will never be worth the risk.

Look for Part II of this column next week for some helpful nutrition-related tips to cope with the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Stephanie Markman is a registered and licensed dietitian at DeTar Healthcare Systems. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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