Four Major Dietary Mistakes Made by Most Cancer Patients
by Colleen Huber, NMD
Given a disease as difficult as cancer, as one might imagine, the choices made by a cancer patient have tremendous impact on the course of the disease, the ease or difficulty of regaining health, indeed the very survival of the individual.
This is all the more true in an outpatient setting. Whereas a hospitalized patient, or one under a highly toxic regimen, has the daily routine arranged by others, the ambulatory outpatient, in contrast, decides for themselves such routine events as diet and exercise and sleep habits.
One of the most common mistakes cancer patients make is to take any of those for granted, or without careful consideration among available choices.
In the 21st century developed world, food choices are more varied than ever before in human history, and people even in the same family can eat vastly differently from each other if they so choose. In Chapters 7 and 8 we showed how food choices can make life or death difference in cancer. We have found in our clinical practice that many dietary differences among cancer patients that create a flutter on the internet are of very little consequence. On the other hand, our clinic has conducted the longest and largest study to date of sugar consumption in cancer patients, and found an overwhelming difference in remission and survival between the sugar eaters and the sugar avoiders. See Chapter 8.
However simple this concept is, and however well-documented in the medical literature going back almost a century, people still seek out and travel long distances to our clinic with considerable unease and confusion regarding the role of sugars in cancer growth and progression.
Most cancer patients arrive saying that they have had a history of being a “sweet tooth.” This seems to be especially true for the pancreatic cancer patients, which should be easily understood when we consider one of the primary roles of the pancreas – one of the main reasons we even have a pancreas, is to regulate the amounts and distribution of sugar in the blood. Therefore, the pancreas has likely suffered some damage or at least extreme conditions by the time the individual receives a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
But it is not only pancreatic cancer patients who enter our clinic with confusion over the role of sugar in cancer or what even constitutes “sugar.” Not by a long shot. Almost everyone asks in their first or second consult if it is alright to have honey or maple syrup or alcohol sugars. This is even after the first day, in which the individualized protocol we recommend – which is quite varied from one patient to the next – generally includes identical, one-size-fits-all boilerplate language of the following form: “It is essential to avoid sweeteners except for stevia.” This is bold, underlined and highlighted in yellow. Yet the most frequent question that we get from patients is what other sweeteners may be acceptable besides stevia.
It’s not that our patients have trouble comprehending what we ask. Far from it; they have considered their options carefully, and have carefully and intelligently made the best and most survivable decision possible in coming to our clinic, I sincerely believe, and as we have amply demonstrated in Chapter 7.
Rather, the problem is that sugar – like tobacco or alcohol – is a hard habit to kick, and giving it up all at once is a bracing and unpleasant prospect for many of our newcomers. They are looking for a way to have their cake and eat it too. Who can blame them, given the fond memories they’ve acquired throughout their lives of enjoying special occasions with our most globally acceptable social lubricant – desserts, sweets, soda and candy? Yet, this is the very thing I ask them to give up – with the lame apology that I am the Grinch that stole the Christmas cookies.
I consider it my responsibility to offer satisfactory substitutes whenever I can, for the sweeteners that I’ve asked my patients to forgo. In our IV rooms, we have various stevia recipes, for such treats as apple pie or frozen coconut/carob cubes and a number of others. Some of them will most dearly miss sweetener in their coffee. For others, the delectable treat is ice cream, and for others it is chocolate. In each case, I make some suggestions until we discuss something palatable that can be made without high glycemic sweeteners. For ice cream, we discuss different fruits that can be added to heavy cream in a blender, to approximate the flavor and texture of ice cream. For chocolate, I recommend 85% cocoa content or higher, one or two small squares per day, in order to try to keep the sugar intake at 3 grams or less. In each case, over the course of our regular consults, patients usually want to discuss food choices and dessert strategies more than any other single topic.
Also, I consider it my responsibility to eat only as I ask my patients to eat. Therefore, I have no sweets at all in my diet, except those sweetened with stevia, and my family follows the same diet, regardless of holidays or birthdays. (We know how to make some very nice holiday cookies with stevia and a stevia pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, etc.) When I make apple pie at home, I actually don’t add any sweetener at all. I simply put apple slices, cinnamon, butter, coconut oil and flour into an unsweetened pie crust, bake at 40 minutes, and that seems to be a nice treat.
Stevia also unfortunately does not grow with an instructional pamphlet attached to the stem, though it would likely be a lot more popular if that were a feature of the plant. The uninitiated assume that stevia will be less sweet than sugar, when in fact it is many times sweeter, hundreds of times more perceptibly sweet, in fact, in a volume-by-volume comparison. Therefore, those trying stevia for the first time often make the mistake of putting a teaspoonful or so in a cup of coffee or other drink, and then nearly gagging at the very unpalatable result. In fact, it takes anywhere from 7 to 12 drops only to sweeten a drink to satisfaction.
I hear more than any other single protest, “I tried stevia, and I don’t like it.” My response is, “That’s likely because you had too much. Try this glass of lemonade: Squeeze ¼ lemon into a glass of water, and add 8 drops only of liquid stevia. Then you may want to add one or two more drops. I think you will find it to be far more pleasant than what you had before.” It seems a majority of patients had such a jarring experience with their first encounter with stevia that they don’t want to try the lemonade, and simply choose to give up all sweets. Fortunately, this abstinence is usually successful at our clinic, because the patients understand that the stakes are quite high. If they had met with the hundreds of patients we have met with over the last decade, and had gotten to know the sweet-eaters who then died of cancer, they would know that the stakes are indeed quite a bit higher than they had imagined.
Thus we plug along on a daily basis, addressing our patients’ sugar nostalgia and anxiety on recipe-by-recipe basis, attempting to forge some common ground of acceptability, negotiating away this and urging that, hoping that they will each find some comfort and diligence in pursuing the new diet.
Those who have made the mistake of not following the recommendation to eliminate sweeteners have more often than not (64% of the time in fact, as seen in Chapter 8) broken our hearts, and we have sent sympathy cards to their bereaved families.
In 2016, two of the lucky ones, survivors, came back at the same time to our clinic with cancer recurrence. One was extroverted and the other was quiet by nature. They had each given up sweets, had a few months of our IV nutrient treatments for breast cancer and lymphoma respectively, and had gone into remission a few years earlier, and stayed in remission during those years. Then over time away from us, each began to eat sweets again. The extroverted patient recently told all fellow patients who would listen: “Don’t do what I did. I began to eat sugar again, and my cancer came back.” As might be imagined, her first-hand account was far more persuasive to the other patients than anything that I might say, although I used many more words and hours to say it. Certainly, there are a number of cancer survivors already who now owe their lives in part to her very timely warning.
Mistake Number 1: Continuing to eat sweets after a cancer diagnosis. This, in our experience, is an even more likely cause of cancer-related death than chemotherapy or continued smoking. See Chapter 8.
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There is another enormously common mistake that cancer patients make:
Like much of the rest of the western hemisphere, cancer patients have been urged by the zeitgeist at large to become vegetarian for better health. On being diagnosed with cancer, and being forced to stare at the specter of one’s own mortality, the time seems urgent to finally follow the widely broadcast advice to become vegetarian or vegan. However, an extraordinarily high number of cancer patients had chosen this path long before diagnosis, and are then dismayed when they find themselves with cancer after making “healthier” choices than most of their peers and loved ones.
Now I will readily acknowledge that a vegetarian diet may well be a preferable choice for a huge portion of the world’s population, varying considerably from say parts of India to say for example the Inuit, perhaps each of them being near the extremes on that particular dichotomy of vegan/vegetarian to omnivore to carnivore, among all human populations. Most of the rest of us throughout the world fall somewhere in between those polar opposites on the vegan-vegetarian-omnivore-carnivore continuum.
I will also acknowledge that a vegan or vegetarian diet is much kinder to the planet and its domesticated animal inhabitants than any alternative. A plant-based diet is also far more efficient since it takes over two pounds of plant material and over a thousand gallons of water to make one pound of beef,i and it takes only dozens or hundreds of gallons of water to make one pound of plant material.ii With the earth’s still accelerating increase in human inhabitants on our Malthusian curve toward “population explosion,” and the domesticated animals that feed us, these numbers must be considered with increasing urgency globally in order to feed us all.
However, when it comes to an individual who, at this relatively brief period of life, is suffering with cancer, such considerations must be put aside.
Much as I think that people without cancer could reasonably consider a vegetarian diet, those with cancer cannot afford such a luxury. The reason is that ultimately, even the best quality carbohydrates break down and metabolize to a greater amount of sugar/glucose in the blood than the two dietary alternatives: fat and protein.
In fact, that’s all we get. Regardless of the lovely smorgasbord available in 21st century supermarkets, if you look at it all in its most basic form, we have three types of food: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Considering that carbohydrates, even those of the highest quality, the colorful vegetables, ultimately break down to sugars, we need to adopt the following strategy with cancer patients: Use proteins and especially fats to crowd out, or to displace, carbohydrates in the diet of cancer patients. Of the appetite that remains for carbohydrates, let us default primarily to those of highest quality: the green and yellow vegetables.
I certainly did not invent this strategy. It not only proceeds logically from the findings of Otto Warburg, but such a diet already has a name: the ketogenic diet, as well as its more popular and easier approximation, the paleo diet, which I described and advocated in my 2007 book, Choose Your Foods Like Your Life Depends On Them, a book that was published before the Paleo Diet became popular, with the book of that name published in 2010.iii However, I certainly was not the first, and won’t be the last by any means to advocate such a diet. Every few years somebody writes the latest version of a healthy omnivore’s diet. Sally Fallon and Mary Enig’s book Nourishing Traditions is highly respected and the most comprehensive work I know with respect to a paleo-type diet.
A strict ketogenic diet is comprised 80% of fat and 20% of a combination of proteins and carbohydrates. As we can imagine, this really leaves no room for a jelly donut or even a spinach salad. Imagine a bacon cheeseburger without a bun. Imagine a cup of heavy cream, with a little coffee added for flavor, a tablespoon of coconut oil and some nuts as a snack. Such a diet is not really the kind of diet that has appealed to the western palate. But there is a far worse problem with it: it is so extreme and restrictive that it is not tenable long-term. Yet the cancer patient needs to survive cancer long-term, and that is the dilemma that must be resolved to their ongoing satisfaction and to their best of health.
Ketogenic diets have been wonderfully helpful in some of the most intractable cancers.iv v Yet despite this very encouraging success, the ketogenic diet is not permanently helpful unless it can be tolerated all the way through to remission. And in my experience, there’s the rub. That has been the deal breaker.
Mistake Number 2 then for the cancer patient is abandoning the ketogenic diet with a reckless plunge into the candy store.
I would not go there if I were you. If you want to abandon the ketogenic diet while you still have cancer, I would go paleo. It’s more tolerable long-term. People stay on a paleo diet for years and grow very comfortable with it. It will likely be tolerable for you well past evidence of your remission. Then if you want to ease off of that, you can go a little more vegetarian.
If even a Paleo Diet is ultimately too restrictive, then have a Mediterranean Diet. This is primarily composed of vegetables, with substantial olive oil, moderate meats and whole grains. Again, desserts, sweets, sodas, candy are absolutely off-limits, out of the question.
However, I advise you not to adopt the Mediterranean Diet while you have an active cancer. Wait until you are in confirmed remission for at least a year, and then you can transition to the Mediterranean Diet.
But you will never be able to eat sweets again. Period. For life. The same life sentence that I am on and am grateful for, because I always feel well and strong, although I am growing alarmingly old. At least, I find such high numbers alarming. It’s okay; before you realize it, you can become comfortable with the Paleo or the Mediterranean lifestyle.
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The third mistake is closely related. People often assume that veganism or vegetarianism is a good strategy to adopt during a bout with cancer. It is not, as I have argued above.
A closely related problem is that sprinkled throughout the internet is the very ill-advised suggestion that if eating vegan is good during cancer, then juicing vegetables must be even better. Even worse, one of the oldest, most widely known natural cancer clinics advocate juicing carrots to cancer patients.
This absolutely abysmal suggestion often begins with the self-righteous assertions of non-cancer patients, people who never had cancer, who chose a vegan lifestyle for themselves. ‘If I chose to be vegan, you should follow me and be vegan too.’
What a horrible mistake. What horrible tumors we have seen at our clinic, after people followed this bad advice for months and years, until their relentlessly growing tumor finally convinced them they were on the wrong path. How many more deaths and how much worse morbidity will these clinics cause, until they finally realize the horror of what they’ve done? Anybody who has cancer and is juicing carrots should stop immediately. I say that across the board, regardless of the stage or type of cancer or condition of the individual. Unless a person is so close to death that the only tolerable nourishment is a few sips of carrot juice, then there is no benefit.
Please eat a carrot or two instead.
I will explain why it is such a horrific mistake for a cancer patient to juice vegetables or fruits. A 16-oz glass of freshly pressed carrot juice has 18 grams of sugar. A 16-oz glass of orange juice has 42 grams of sugar.vi Juicing either fruits or vegetables is a problem for this reason: The fiber in the fruit or vegetable slows down the entry of sugar to the bloodstream, because in the process of early digestion from mouth to stomach, the juice in the fruit or vegetable ends up trickling in at a much slower pace than if you were to drink it. When you drink the juice, there is no such filter, no such rate-limiting process. Therefore, the sugar in that produce enters the bloodstream faster than the pancreas can provide insulin to place the sugar into cells. It is very slightly better to add the pulp back into the juice, and eat that soupy slurry instead, but you still have a dangerously high glycemic assault even in this preparation.
It has been shown that if you eat an apple, you have only a modest rise in blood sugar, with a likewise modest rise in insulin. However, if you take the very same size and type of apple and juice it, your blood sugar rises precipitously, with a likewise high-amplitude disturbance of insulin release, setting your metabolism on an unhelpful roller coaster. Thus, with juicing, a large bolus of glucose in the blood is available suddenly in large amount to a growing, grasping tumor, which thrives on little else but sugar.
Mistake Number 3 is juicing vegetables and fruits. Please don’t do that; please eat the whole vegetable or fruit, with limitation on quantity of fruit.
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The next mistake is somewhat similar to Mistake Number Two, and it has arisen from misconceptions that have come from certain individuals who do not work with cancer patients. When researchers who work in the laboratory begin to consult with clinicians who work with real people, who happen to have cancer, then I think our understanding of cancer and how to move forward will improve.
But first I must debunk another hypothesis that is making the rounds among those interested in natural treatments for cancer.
Otto Warburg clearly pointed to sugar as the main factor that makes cancer worse. Actually, it is not the cause of cancer. That, as Warburg showed, is different, and I will get to that in the next chapter. However, sugar is the fuel that keeps cancer alive, thriving and growing unchecked.
Somehow, it has also been assumed, without basis, that glutamine – which is an amino acid – that is not glucose-based, was involved with cancer.
I disagree with that view. Glucose is a sugar, and it fuels cancer growth. Glutamine is not only an amino acid, it is the most common amino acid in the proteins in our food. And it has been the most commonly eaten amino acid throughout human history, including in the great majority of our history when cancer was exceedingly rare. Sugar, in the forms of various sweeteners, is the substance that has sky-rocketed in use just in recent generations, tracking closely in populations with the rapid increase in cancer incidence. Sugar is the fuel for cancer, not glutamine. But the innocence of glutamine is not only established by human history, but also by biochemistry, because it does not contribute to anaerobic fermentation. That is, the substrate for anaerobic fermentation is only sugars, not the amino acids.
Therefore, there are those who advocate, without scientific basis, that cancer patients also avoid proteins, in order to minimize glutamine.
That is terrible advice. Glutamine is not only the most abundant non-essential amino acid. It is consumed in normal tissue more than ten times as much as any other amino acid.vii Cancer patients need to consume proteins and fats in order to crowd out or to displace carbohydrates from their overall food consumption, and to have the fuel to keep themselves going and thriving and staying active, the urgent necessity of which I will show in Chapter 14, Exercise and Oxygen.
Now there are 3 basic types of foods, as I mentioned before: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. If a cancer patient avoids both carbohydrates and proteins, there is little left to consume but fat. And that is a diet that is hard enough to tolerate with a strict ketogenic diet (80% fat, 20% carbohydrates plus proteins.)
But worse, there are writers who advocate fasting to cancer patients. Sometimes this has the euphemism of “dietary energy reduction.” Basically, fasting deprives fuel to everything in the body. The thinking was that cancer is an especially fast-growing tissue, so then fasting would deprive cancer more and more intensely than it would deprive the normal tissue comprising the rest of the body. The justification for this is that cancerous cells deprived of fuel undergo apoptosis rather than necrosis. Apoptosis is the cell death of normal tissue, easier and cleaner for the body to process and dispose of than necrotic tissue.viii
One author, not a clinician, asks:
“Is it better to kill tumor cells using toxic drugs, as is currently done in the oncology field, or is it better to kill tumor cells using a nontoxic metabolic therapy like [dietary energy restriction]?ix
I would respond that a poor therapy is not a satisfactory alternative to an abysmal therapy, when successful and tolerable natural therapies exist and are increasingly widely used, as we will see in later chapters.
The arguments in favor of fasting for cancer patients are not strong arguments. The strongest argument offered by the above author is that normal healthy volunteers were able to lower their blood glucose when fasting, and because cancer thrives on glucose, we should be able to help starve cancer by semi-starving the patient.x That argument is only slightly better than having an appendectomy in order not to have cancer of the appendix, or a double mastectomy, in the hope of avoiding breast cancer – never mind that breast cancer can occur in the remaining tissue close to the chest wall.
Mistake Number 4 is fasting and the avoidance of protein. Do not fast, at least no more than a 12 or 24 hour fast, such as the religious fasts or intermittent fasting, because you will need to eat for the exercise that is absolutely essential to your survival as I will describe in the next chapter. Do not avoid protein for the same reason.
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There is a growing pile of corpses to whom I could say “I told you so.” In fact, I have not been wrong yet about the exact course that each of my patients should pursue. The ones who listened to me have fared the best, except the small minority with already uncontrollable, relentless cancers. Let me please say “I told you so” through this book while you are still alive and still have an opportunity to survive cancer. No corpse can hear me say it, and it wouldn’t do any good if they could, and it is far too cruel and useless to say to the surviving loved ones.
There are those who will say that I write too strictly, that I have dared to take on too many of the misconceptions, lies and utterly abysmal advice of my contemporaries in oncology all at once. A more prudent writer would dare to rebel against only one poorly conceived nostrum at a time, without dismissing all bad dogma simultaneously.
To them I say this: The cancer patient sitting in front of me has perhaps a few months to live if they get this wrong, if they do not figure out whether it is my opponents or it is I telling them the truth. They don’t have time for those who know nothing but preach loudly to be gently persuaded or for me to delicately hold the chemotherapy oncologists’ hands as I guide them to a gradual and painless enlightenment.
Besides, as I established at the beginning of this book, my highest allegiance is to the wellbeing of the cancer patient who has done me the honor of entrusting me with their care, within the confines of the law. I do not apply for membership in any Exclusive Club for Sclerosed Thought, which so many modern clinicians have organized themselves into.
So I will not waste my cancer patients’ time. Those who offer bad advice to cancer patients are mere flies buzzing around their numbered meals. They must now stop misguiding people with their bad advice before any more lives are lost as a result.