What to Eat (and Avoid) if You Have Cancer

Hiya Gorgeous!

One of my favorite places can be found right outside of Chicago and worlds away from the scary, sterile hospitals that many of us have become all too familiar with. It’s warm, inviting and filled with energy. I truly believe that it’s one of the most unique, special and important places in all of cancer care.

I’m talking about the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment, and saying that I was surprised the first time I visited this magical, healing haven would be a serious understatement.

I was inspired not only by the environment—complete with a beautiful kitchen, exercise equipment, and spaces to connect and meditate—but also by the positive, patient-centric approach to cancer treatment, management and prevention.

Liz Gold

That’s why I’m so excited to bring you this interview with Lizabeth Gold MS, RDN. Liz is one of three incredible Block Center care team members I interviewed for the Healing Cancer World Summit (I also spoke with co-founders Keith I. Block, MD and Penny Block, PhD). She works closely with patients to incorporate nutrition into their healing journeys, and we have so much to learn from her extensive knowledge and experience.

Kris: Tell our readers a little bit about your background and work at the Block Center. How did you get into nutrition and dietetics?

Liz: Like most of the people I meet who are passionate about nutrition, I have a bit of an interesting story. I started my career in a high-stress sales job. Many evenings consisted of dinners out with clients and I did a lot of traveling. Needless to say, my diet and lifestyle choices were not a priority and I began to get very sick. After numerous visits to my doctor with no solid diagnosis other than a severe case of IBS (and me being unwilling to take pills to solve the problem), I began to do my own research.

Through that research and a lot of help from an amazing acupuncturist here in Chicago who helped me make some additional dietary changes, I made a full recovery and felt better than I ever had in my whole life. It was then that I realized the importance of nutrition and the dramatic difference it can make in one’s overall health. I became more and more passionate about cooking, nutrition and health in general, and finally decided to scrap my sales job and pursue a master’s in nutrition!

I knew that after I finished my degree, the best fit for me would be at a place where people really understood the importance of nutrition and were on top of all the latest research. In the world of nutrition, things are changing quickly and I wanted continuous exposure to the latest research. Luckily, I got accepted to a program that allows students to set up their own clinical rotations, and I was fortunate to be able to arrange an internship at the Block Center.

From there it was easy, I knew this was the place for me. The Block Center is an integrative cancer treatment center that provides conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, but we also understand the impact that nutrition and other lifestyle habits can have on the biochemistry of the body. Put simply, we use nutrition to not only make chemotherapy less toxic, but also to alter the body’s biochemistry making it less hospitable to cancer. We provide specific nutrition instructions for a whole-food, plant-based diet customized to fit each patient’s individual needs. We also provide all follow-up nutrition support as they move through chemotherapy and into remission.

Research is also a large part of my job as we are constantly assessing new information regarding various supplements, natural remedies, and new cancer treatments and their side effects, such as immunotherapy. I work extensively with our research team to parse out the large amounts of misinformation found on the internet. We have a lot of patients coming in with misconceptions regarding various diet trends and/or cancer “cures,” so I need to understand the issues in order to address their concerns.

Kris: What kinds of challenges, especially related to diet and nutrition, do you tend to see people experience when they’re sick or in treatment?

Liz: Probably the single biggest challenge is loss of appetite. When you think about it, food is such a huge part of our life and, for most people, it is associated with feelings of pleasure and good times. So when patients don’t feel like eating, it is not just a physical problem, it’s a mental problem. Patients have to do this whole shift from “I can’t wait to eat dinner” to “I know I should eat dinner.”

This is tough on not just the patient, but also on the family members caring for that person. As the patient begins to eat less, the family members have a tendency to want to force him/her to eat. This causes a lot of guilt on the side of the family member and also on the patient. This is where I really try to dig in and find out what sounds good to the patient because everyone is very different.

When people are sick, they have a tendency to fall back into habits of comfort foods like sugary foods, junk foods, or things like macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes. A large part of our job is providing the resources they need to make healthier versions of those comfort foods or to adapt recipes to their current preferences.

Patients often quickly lose interest in smoothies and shakes, but freezing them into little smoothie pops is effective for someone craving cold foods and can be very soothing for mouth sores. If a patient is doing better with warm foods, we have dozens of hearty soup recipes we can suggest. We also provide cooking classes at the Block Center where we might take a classic comfort food or junk food and make a healthy version such as crispy eggplant pizza, tempeh gyros or BBQ jackfruit sliders. I think it is really useful for patients and their loved ones to see how easy it is to make something healthy and delicious.

Kris: What advice do you have for someone who has just been diagnosed and doesn’t know what to do next, especially as it relates to their eating habits? What should they eat more or less of to support their health?

Liz: The most important thing is to begin by eating more vegetables and less processed foods, and to really cut down on refined carbohydrates and refined sugars because they have little nutritional value and cause spikes in blood sugar. Every meal should consist of mostly vegetables with a serving of some whole, unprocessed grains and a bit of fruit.

Meat and dairy are also inflammatory, so I would also suggest beginning to back off quite a bit on those as well, and start focusing on plant-based proteins like beans, peas, whole soy foods like tempeh or edamame, and lentils. I also suggest switching to dairy alternatives like oat, almond or cashew-based products.

Things like alcohol, soda, energy drinks, artificial ingredients, chips, baked goods, etc. should all be avoided. Whole foods are always best, but if you have to buy something in a bag or box, now would be a good time to start paying attention to labels and looking out for hydrogenated fats, refined sugars and artificial additives.

Kris: How can patients figure out the best supplement routine for them? Anything in particular that everyone should take or avoid?

Liz: Supplements can provide an additional boost in immunity, help fight inflammation and even help balance blood sugar. There are also some supplements that should be avoided, especially if they interfere with medications or if they are known to cause problems with the liver or kidney. Doctors are usually open to having a conversation about supplements and can help you get the proper testing to determine which supplements you should and shouldn’t include in your routine.

Curcumin and vitamin D are two things that are good for everyone. Curcumin is known for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties. Many people know that vitamin D is necessary for bone health, but what a lot of people don’t know is that almost every cell in our body has a vitamin D receptor—and many people aren’t getting enough. Deficiencies in vitamin D have been implicated in a multitude of diseases from diabetes to multiple sclerosis.

Keep in mind: Because vitamin D is fat soluble, you can also take too much. Testing is the best way to be sure about the vitamin levels in your body. Here at the Block Center, we do a full terrain panel that assesses antioxidant levels, immune system functioning, glycemic functioning and inflammation. Again, working with your doctor is the best way to determine the supplement regimen that’s right for you.

Kris: Do you have any tips or recommendations for our readers interested in prevention (reducing inflammation, building immunity, etc.)?

Liz: A combination of a whole-food, plant-based diet along with a customized supplement plan and lifestyle changes (such as daily moderate-intensity exercise) will help build immunity and reduce inflammation. It is difficult to make specific recommendations because everyone is at a different point in their journey. Recommendations would be completely different for someone just starting out versus someone looking to fine tune their already healthy lifestyle. The main goal is to always be improving on something.

Kris: How can caregivers help their loved ones experiencing nausea, loss of appetite, etc.? Any tips related to mealtime (and being supportive without hovering)?

Liz: It is important not to overwhelm. Small meals on big plates work best. Let your loved one know that it is OK if they only take a few bites. Certain smells can interfere significantly with appetite, so try to prepare food when the person is not home or have them eat in a room away from where it was cooked. If possible, taking a quick walk around the block outside in the fresh air can stimulate appetite as well as provide a good break from the cooking smells.

Ginger or a ginger smoothie (frozen peaches with fresh ginger blended with almond milk) can ease nausea and improve digestion. Metal utensils can cause strange tastes, so swapping them out for reusable plastic utensils can help. Having music playing during mealtimes and putting flowers on the table may seem like small things, but they can make a big difference.

Different surroundings and groups of people make mealtime a little more festive and can help boost appetite as well. Take advantage of those “good” times of day when appetite is at its best and encourage loved ones to eat a little more during those times.

Kris: Can you provide a couple of simple recipe ideas for patients and caregivers?

Liz: Here’s a basic template for a nutrient-dense smoothie:

  • Healthy fats like MCT oil, unsweetened almond butter or avocado
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Healthy proteins like a good pea protein powder and some soy* milk or cashew milk
  • A handful of berries
  • 1/2 banana on the green side (good prebiotic)

*Soy WHAT? If you’re not so sure about soy, check out this article.

It is also OK to open up supplements and add them to the smoothie, especially if they’re difficult to take. Multivitamins, vitamin D, curcumin and vitamin C are good choices for added nutrients and support for healing and detoxification.

As I said earlier, vegetable and pureed soups are excellent options. The easiest thing to do is start with a ratio of 2:1:1 of onions, celery, carrots (known as mirepoix). Chop and saute those ingredients for a bit, then add garlic and any other spices you like. Cook for a bit, then add vegetable broth. From there, you can add anything from beans to kale to red potatoes to parsley to cilantro.

I make most of my soups up as I go along and they turn out just fine. I buy a few good spices, like garam masala or curry powder, and decide on the fly depending on my mood (or the mood of my patients if I am making it for them). Butternut squash is about the easiest thing to make and it is so comforting. Just take that same mirepoix and saute along with cubed butternut squash (you can buy this at Trader Joe’s conveniently cut up for you!). After about 5 minutes, pour in some vegetable broth and cook covered until the butternut squash is soft. Let it cool, then blend it with a little bit of nutmeg, almond milk, cinnamon and you’re good to go. Yum.

Kris: What have you learned from the patients you work with about healing?

Liz: I have learned that the power of healing is often dependent on three things: It is partly in the heart, partly in the mind, and partly in the body—and you really need to go after it on all three fronts. It is so important to have hope in your heart and courage and strength in your mind. And you have to be good to your body by giving it what it needs to be able to fight its biggest battle.

Wow. Isn’t Liz smart? She’s one of the most helpful, holistically minded people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I just love how her philosophy focuses on strengthening the immune system with small, manageable shifts in our diet and lifestyle choices. Liz truly exemplifies what it means to empower patients through an uplifting, non-judgemental approach.

Your turn: Do you have any questions for Liz? Leave them in the comments below!

Peace and cancer-fighting foods,

Kris Carr

P.S. Missed out on the Healing Cancer World Summit?

Join the waitlist to be the first to know about the next summit! You’ll also receive a free audio lesson from Liz’s popular session. Sign up here!