Just over three years ago, Vancouver realtor Gerry Gramek got the diagnosis everyone dreads. An aggressive form of cancer was found in his colon, and he needed surgery fast. He says nothing could have prepared him for the news.
“I can tell you when you hear those words from the doctor, everything changes in that instant,” Gramek says in a phone interview. “I felt like I was free-falling: I was absolutely terrified.”
Gramek’s surgery to remove a section of his colon went well. But his health scare resulted in lasting changes in his lifestyle, one of the biggest ones being to his diet. Gone are the days of eating most of his meals in restaurants and consuming several cups of coffee a day.
“I thought I was eating relatively healthily, but I learned I was feeding the cancer instead of fuelling my body,” Gramek says. “I really feel that my body facilitated the growth of the cancer and that unless something changed, it would be ridiculous to believe I’ll never get cancer again.”
Diet does play a role in cancer, as local scientist Gerald Krystal and holistic nutritional consultant Angela Wright can attest. And with the holiday season approaching, now is a good time for people to make lasting changes that can help ward off the disease.
Krystal, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UBC and distinguished scientist at BC Cancer Agency’s Terry Fox Laboratory, has been following a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet himself ever since he started studying the role of diet on cancer in mice several years ago.
“It’s well-known that the vast majority of tumours take up and need more glucose than normal cells to survive and grow,” Krystal says in an interview from his office. “Carbs are rapidly broken down into glucose….We came up with this saying at the BC Cancer Agency: cancers crave carbs.”
Krystal headed a study published last year in the journal Cancer Research that compared the effects of a typical western diet to those of a low-carb, high-protein diet on tumour growth and incidence in mice predisposed to breast cancer.
The mice on the western diet ate 55 percent carbs, 23 percent protein, and 22 percent fat—and experienced weight gain and increased cancer risk. Those on the low-carb, high-protein diet consumed a daily diet of 15 percent carbs, 25 percent fat and 60 percent protein. (This is not the same breakdown as the Atkins diet.)
“We found that tumours grew slower in mice that ate a low-carb, high-protein diet,” Krystal says. “At one year of age, half of the mice on the western diet had tumours but none on the low-carb diet had tumours. “So [on the low-carb, high-protein diet] tumours appeared later…and there were fewer of them. What’s intriguing is that the mice on the low-carb, high-protein diet over a long term maintained a constant weight, while those on a western diet slowly got heavier and heavier, just like humans on a western diet.”
“Because cancer cells need to take up more glucose to have energy to survive, that can be exploited through the diet by lowering blood glucose,” Krystal says, noting that ways to do that include avoiding white bread, white rice, and other products made with white flour, which all cause spikes in insulin levels after being consumed. (Look for those labelled 100-percent whole grain.)
Krystal, who snacks on almonds and adds chia seeds to his breakfast, notes that people should consult with their doctors about significant changes to their diet, especially those with Type 2 diabetes who could be at risk of kidney damage with elevated protein levels.
Meanwhile, Wright—who is a nutritional consultant at InspireHealth, a Vancouver-based, government-funded integrated cancer centre with offices throughout the province—says that although eating a wholesome diet doesn’t guarantee you won’t get cancer, it is one aspect of preventive health that individuals can take charge of.
“Of course we all know people whose diets are stellar and who still get cancer,” Wright says in a phone interview. “There are so many pieces of every person’s puzzle and so many we don’t have control over. Food is something we can control. We can choose to put whole, good foods that the body can use in our mouths.”
The approach at InspireHealth isn’t to give people strict regimens regarding what they must and must not eat, but rather to help them adjust their diets in a way that’s manageable and stress-free.
“I don’t want to say to people, ‘You need to eat X amount of this, you need to eat every hour, and you need to soak all your legumes,’ ” Wright says. “But I can say to someone, ‘Let’s add blueberries to your breakfast, maybe throw in some flax seeds, have some salmon for lunch, and drink more water.’ That’s something people can do, and it’s not adding extra stress for people going through cancer.”
Everyone can benefit from eating wholesome foods, some of which appear to slow tumour growth, such as cruciferous vegetables, garlic, onions, turmeric, green tea, omega-3 fats, tomatoes, and citrus fruits, Wright notes.
She adds that the eat-local movement is also good for people’s health, and she encourages people to consume super foods that are endemic to B.C.: blueberries, salmon, and seaweed, for instance.
Other tips? Read labels and avoid products with extremely long ingredient lists, ingredients that are hard to pronounce, and those that contain numbers (such as “dye #2”).
Then there is the power of eating healthily while eating well.
“Even if someone is eating a perfect diet, there are many other things to consider,” Wright says. “If they eat the best and cleanest diet but eat rushed, eat on the run, eat all of their food late at night, and so on, their body can’t get the most out of the food. A person’s lifestyle, stress levels, and emotional health all relate to their body’s ability to heal or stay healthy.
“The more we take responsibility to put good healing foods into our bodies the more we can handle the rest of the stresses outside of our current control.”
InspireHealth offers its members cooking classes and nutritional workshops, some of which Gramek participated in. He says the lasting changes he’s made to his diet have improved his quality of life dramatically.
“I feel so much better in every way,” Gramek says. “And learning those skills was very empowering. It put some control back in my life when I was feeling helpless. Every day I can be my own advocate.”