Using food to fight prostate cancer

By Suzanne Rose

Last week I attended the Massachusetts Prostate Cancer Coalition’s 14th annual symposium. I wasn’t exactly surprised that nearly every seat in the nutrition session was taken, given recent headlines that coffee may protect against prostate cancer development and that heart-healthy omega-3 fats might promote it. Perhaps everyone hoped to learn more about coffee and other “miracle” foods.

Nutritionist Sheila Wolfson

Boston-area nutritionist Sheila Wolfson focused on something more realistic but equally important—healthful eating once cancer has made its appearance. What she had to say about particular foods wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the way she linked diet to quality of life got the audience’s attention. Wolfson noted that men with prostate cancer (or anyone with cancer, for that matter) often feel that they have little control in their lives. But by choosing to eat healthfully, people with cancer can take control of their health, which can improve their attitude. By opting for more nutritious foods, people can create energy and vitality and enrich their quality of life.

Wolfson’s introduction made me think that she was about to rattle off a seemingly unending and overwhelming list of dietary changes that men with prostate cancer need to make without acknowledging how difficult this can be. Instead, she talked about what she ate growing up—lots of meat and few vegetables, mostly of the canned variety. She admitted that healthy eating doesn’t always come naturally and that people need to take small steps over time to be successful. Wolfson recommended three steps toward a more healthful diet:

  • Eat more plant-based foods.
  • Eat fewer foods from animals.
  • Watch portion sizes and eat all foods in moderation.

A growing body of evidence shows that consuming high amounts of red meat and other food from animals, along with excess weight, raises the risk of certain diseases, including prostate cancer. That’s why Wolfson said people should fill two-thirds of their plates with plant-based foods such as vegetables, grains, fruits, legumes (beans), nuts, and seeds.

If you aren’t a vegetable fan, Wolfson offered another helpful tip: try one new vegetable or good-for-you food a week—and don’t give up if you don’t like it right away. “Kale might not be exciting to you the first time you try it, but keep working to make it palatable,” Wolfson said. “Try cooking it a different way, add it to soup, or find another recipe that you might like.”

When asked about dealing with a wheat allergy, Wolfson said that eating grains doesn’t necessarily mean having a slice of whole wheat bread. There are many non-wheat grains, including buckwheat, quinoa, barley, brown rice, corn meal, and rye. Because different grains contain different nutrients, one should strive to eat a variety of them. As for breakfast cereals, opt for whole-grain varieties with no more than 5 or 6 grams of sugar per serving. To sweeten cereal, add fresh fruit, such as blueberries.

Speaking of fruit, Wolfson said to choose fresh or frozen fruit, if possible, for higher nutritional value. Dried fruit is an option, but don’t overdo it because it’s generally high in sugar.

A healthy diet should also include legumes such as kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas and hummus, lentils, and natural peanut butter. Canned beans are easier to use than dried beans, but if you buy the canned variety, rinse the beans to remove excess salt, which can elevate blood pressure.

For many in the audience, the take-home message probably wasn’t new: it’s best to stick to a diet rich in plant-based foods. It isn’t as exciting a message as “coffee may protect against prostate cancer,” but it will probably have a bigger payoff in the long run.

Published may 25, 2011.

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