Confusion over Dietary Recommendations

Cancer Patients Confused Over Diet Recommendations

By Salynn Boyles WebMD Medical News

(Oct. 24) -- Medical experts have been saying for years that a diet low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables is a good way to prevent certain cancers. But now a study from Denmark suggests that too many patients who actually have cancer are confused by the advice. And they may be endangering their recoveries by following it.

Most cancer patients participating in a nationwide survey believed that vegetables and low-calorie foods were better choices than foods that are high in calories, according to researchers from Copenhagen University Hospital.

A. Bonde Jensen, MD, says the results point to a need for improved dietary counseling for cancer patients. Jensen spoke Wednesday at the European Cancer Conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

The issue of nutrition among cancer patients remains controversial. But most large health organizations, including the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the U.S., recommend that cancer patients undergoing treatment try to eat high-calorie diets that emphasize protein.

In its publication, Eating Hints for Cancer Patients, the NCI stresses foods like milk, cream, eggs, and cheese and recommends cooking with butter or oil.

"Recommendations about food and eating for cancer patients can be very different from the usual suggestions for healthful eating," the publication states. "This can be confusing for many patients because these new suggestions may seem to be the opposite of what they've always heard."

The high-calorie diet is advocated to combat the weight loss and malnutrition that frequently occurs with cancer and cancer treatments. Malnutrition is a major cause of illness and death in cancer patients. As many as one in four people with cancer report anorexia, or the loss of appetite, at diagnosis and, among those with very advanced cancers, almost all patients lose their desire to eat.

Loss of appetite is also a frequent side effect of various cancer treatments.

Most agree that cancer patients who have completed treatment and are in recovery should follow general healthy eating guidelines. But experts disagree about the best nutritional course for patients who are undergoing therapy, and the evidence is inconclusive.

While many cancer-nutrition experts favor the high-protein, high-calorie diet endorsed by the NCI, two other authorities tell WebMD that they do not.

Both said that unless a patient is extremely malnourished, a high-calorie, high-fat diet could do more harm than good.

"Most cancer patients need to eat healthy foods and not try to force a high-calorie diet," Daniel W. Nixon, MD, tells WebMD. "To me, it seems illogical to say people should eat fruits and vegetables and limit fats to prevent cancer, but then to turn around and say that when you get cancer you should eat lots of fats and calories."

Nixon is president of the American Health Foundation and is author of the book The Cancer Recovery Eating Plan.

Michael Wargovich, MD, who is director of basic research at the South Carolina Cancer Center, says there is growing evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may be as beneficial for cancer patients as it is for those trying to prevent the disease.

He cited studies suggesting that tumor growth slows in cancer patients switching from high-fat to low-fat diets.

"Except in the case where there is debilitation due to a lack of total nutrition, during the time of chemotherapy, and even after, I think it is important to stay on a low-fat diet that is high in fruits and vegetables," he says. "That doesn't mean low-calorie, though.

You can get plenty of calories in carbohydrates."

So with all these opinions flying around, all coming from people who know a lot about cancer and nutrition, there is no wonder people are getting confused. The best thing to do is make sure you talk to the doctors treating you about your diet.

They will be able to help you develop good eating habits and may even be able to suggest foods that are both good for you and easier to tolerate during your recovery.

Medically Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson 2001 WebMD Corporation. All rights reserved.

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