Health AreasNon-communicable Diseases

The role of nutrition in cancer prevention, treatment

Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

These words by Greek physician Hippocrates emphasize the delicate role of nutrition to prevent or cure disease. Hippocrates is celebrated as the Father of medicine for his work in acknowledging the sanctity of the body. He was one of the pioneer doctors who called for the modifications of lifestyles such as diet and exercise to manage conditions like diabetes.

This week we discuss the complementary role of nutrition in the prevention, treatment and management of cancer. Whereas this is a complex subject to tackle given the daily emerging discussions of food therapies as replacement to conventional medicines, it is important to note that there is no single food that can help prevent cancer from developing.

Elizabeth Ndunge, a clinical Nutritionist at Kenyatta National Hospital defines eating well as having the optimal balance of all the food classes (Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats, Vitamins and Minerals)  “The nutritional requirements of an individual are determined by whether the person has normal weight, underweight, overweight or obese as per the Body Mass Index,” she said.

We begin with lowering the risk of cancer through observing what is on our plates every day.

For the meat lovers

The protein needs for patients with cancer increases during treatment hence it is important to consider the quality of the source of protein.  Proteins help in cell growth and repair and also maintains a healthy immune system. Good sources of protein include fish, poultry, lean red meat, eggs, dairy products, nuts and nut butters, dried beans, peas and lentils, and soy foods.Elizabeth observes that red meat should be eaten in moderation to meet the required daily dietary intakes. Plant based proteins are healthier but Elizabeth also recommends that meat is also a great source of iron that is essential in blood formation. “Four to six standard cubes of meat constitute one serving and this taken at least thrice a week meets the recommended protein intake for animal based proteins. White meat can also be considered as an alternative source of protein.

Faith Kariuki Biongo, a clinical Nutritionist further observes that  about 10% of all cancer cases can be prevented through adopting a healthier lifestyle including healthier dietary habits. This includes adopting a diet rich in plant foods such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains and legumes many help lower risk of many types of cancer. “Increasing consumption of plant based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetable and legumes can help reduce its risk. Plant based foods are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which work as a defense system against free radicals which can destroy healthy cells increasing risk of chronic conditions like cancer,’ Faith said. She further noted that plant based foods are also the only source of phytonutrients, compounds that help prevent many disease in the human body.

The risk of cancer increases with increased meat intake and method of preparation matters too. “Meat prepared on open flame like roasting or on hot surfaces produces some chemicals (like heterocyclic aromatic amines)that can be carcinogenic if consumed regularly and in large amounts,” Faith said.

Four years ago the cancer agency of WHO classified red meat as being probably cancer-causing (carcinogenic) Processed meats were classified as carcinogenic, with every 50 grams consumed increasing risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. “Most processed meats are preserved using nitrate compounds which helps improve their flavour and colour. Once consumed, the body converts nitrates into nitrites which are further converted into nitrosamines, compounds that are linked to increased risk of cancer,” Faith noted.

Alcohol intake

Increased alcohol intake has been associated with heightened risk of cancer of the mouth, liver colon and breast. And here is a precautionary word for the women too, who hug the beer bottle too close, too often. “Women who consume at least 3 alcoholic drinks per week have 15% more risk of breast cancer compared to those who don’t drink alcohol,” Faith said.

Faith, who also a consultant clinical nutritionist at Afya Bora Nutrition and Wellness Centre added that the human body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic compound that can potentially damage the DNA. This can also stop cells from repairing this damage increasing the risk of developing cancer.

Nutrition and cancer treatment

According to Faith, eating the right kinds of food before, during and after treatment serves the following functions;

  • Maintains strength and energy
  • Reduces the risk of weight loss and muscle loss,
  • Helps the patient tolerate the side effects of treatment better
  • Improves quality of life
  • Enhances positivity as it helps the patient carry on with the normal daily activities.

She is quick to advise that there is no one meal that fits all in cancer treatment hence it is prudent for a meal plan to be developed on a case-by-case basis. Whereas the key goal is to ensure that the foods are healthy and beneficial, the planning will also strive to incorporate the persons’ personal food choices, cultures and also advise on how to enhance taste.

Faith also dispels a common myth food alone can cure cancer. “The overall diet should be high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains but low in simple sugars, fats, and salt, highly processed and refined foods, “ she said. As cancer treatment progresses, some people find that some foods become intolerable. According to Faith, many cancer symptoms and treatment side effect also affect how the body tolerates some foods and even how effectively nutrients are utilised by the body. “Due to these side effects it may become hard for one to maintain healthy eating habits and one may only be able to tolerate foods that are seen as less healthy. In such cases the focus should be on getting,” she said.

The National Cancer Institute offers a few tips below on how to manage cancer treatment side effects through diet.

Nausea Eat foods that are bland, soft, and easy-to-digest

Eat dry toast or crackers before getting out of bed if you have nausea in the morning.

Eat foods and drink liquids at room temperature (not too hot or too cold).

Slowly sip liquids throughout the day and rinse your mouth before and after eating.

Eat 5 or 6 small meals every day instead of 3 large meals; Do not skip meals and snacks.

Sit up or lie with your head raised for one hour after eating.

vomiting Don’t eat or drink until the vomiting stops, Drink small amounts of clear liquids after vomiting stops.

After you are able to drink clear liquids without vomiting, drink liquids such as strained soups, that are easy on your stomach.

Eat 5 or 6 small meals every day instead of 3 large meals.

Sit upright and bend forward after vomiting.

Dry Mouth


Moisten food with sauce, gravy, or salad dressing.

Eat foods and drinks that are very sweet or tart, such as lemonade, to help make more saliva.

Chew gum or suck on hard candy, ice pops, or ice chips.

Sip water throughout the day. Keep your lips moist with lip balm.

Rinse your mouth every 1 to 2 hours. Do not use mouthwash that contains alcohol.

Mouth sores Eat soft foods that are easy to chew, Use a blender or food processor to make food smooth.

Suck on ice chips to numb and soothe your mouth.

Eat foods cold or at room temperature. Hot foods can hurt your mouth.

Drink with a straw to move liquid past the painful parts of your mouth.

Rinse your mouth 3 to 4 times a day. Mix ¼ teaspoon baking soda, ⅛ teaspoon salt, and 1 cup warm water for a mouth rinse. Do not use mouthwash that contains alcohol.

Do not use toothpicks or other sharp objects.

Taste Changes


Eat more nonmeat, high-protein foods and moderate intake of meats

Add spices and sauces to foods (marinate foods).

Use sugar-free lemon drops, gum, or mints if there is a metallic or bitter taste in your mouth.

Use plastic utensils and do not drink directly from metal containers if foods have a metal taste.

Keep foods and drinks covered, drink through a straw and  Rinse your mouth before and after meals

Sore Throat and Trouble Swallowing


Eat soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow, Moisten food with gravy, sauces, broth, or yogurt.

Cut food into small pieces. Use a blender or food processor to make food smooth.

Drink with a straw And Eat 5 or 6 small meals every day instead of 3 large meals.

Sit upright and bend your head slightly forward when eating or drinking, and stay upright for at least 30 minutes after eating.

Source: National Cancer Institute

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