Ditch the Detox Diet: Cancer Patients Should Eat Clean, Whole Foods

Organic Fruits & Vegetables

When we hear that a friend, neighbor or co-worker is doing a detox diet, we often wonder how crazy or severe their chosen detox is. Are they sustaining on a concoction of spicy lemonade? Are they fasting or juicing for days on end? Does their diet resemble a rabbit’s?

The amount of detoxification products on the shelves is staggering. In 2008 alone, 54 new food and drink products hit the market with the word “detox” in the description. Despite their popularity, most people can’t clearly define what a detox diet is — not because they don’t know, but because there is no one-size-fits-all definition.

Detoxifying diets like the Master Cleanse are popular among celebrities, while juice cleanses are popular among health enthusiasts. Recently, vegan diets are getting lumped into the mix. “Detox diet” has become such a ubiquitous phrase in health news that consumers aren’t sure whether to view detoxing as another health craze or as a serious consideration.

And they’re nervous either way, because regardless of the benefits or risks, the mere existence of detox diets suggests that we’re in need of some bodily cleansing. That concept doesn’t come to a surprise given the amount of chemicals that are used today to process, preserve and store food, but do such toxins affect cancer patients differently?

Should people with cancer be running to or away from detox diets?

Detox What?

Anyone researching dietary options can quickly feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of conflicting nutritional information. People with cancer have even more to think about than the average person when it comes to nutrition. Let’s cut the fat, and serve up the detox basics.

The essence of most detox regimens is to omit or limit unhealthy foods. The usual suspects are sweets, dense fats, salty snacks and processed foods. Drinks like soda, alcohol and caffeine are commonly avoided. Some detox diets advise the elimination of meat and dairy, others limit solid foods in favor of liquids, and some focus on the addition of herbs or alkaline food.

The unifying goal among them is to cleanse the body of – or just give it a break from – compounds that can have a toxic effect in humans.

Many of these diets aim to flush the body of harmful compounds quickly. In essence, some of these detox diets promise to cleanse your body like a speed-cleaning service would scrub your house. Hate to clean baseboards and toilets? Hire a housekeeper, and relax. Cringe at the idea of eating healthy on a daily basis? Buy a detox kit, and cross your fingers.

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Polarization of Detoxing Doesn’t Help

Many people with cancer wonder if they should try a detox diet. They know they should eat healthier, and they naturally question whether a fast track to a clean body is accessible to them. But with healthy diets like veganism getting lumped together with the Hollywood 48-Hour Miracle Diet, people don’t know whether to trust or question the reported health benefits of detoxing.

Proponents of detox dieting say our bodies need cleansing because the amount of toxic chemicals in our food, water and air is too high for human safety. Opponents say the body already does a good job of filtering out these toxins, and that only a few chemicals actually accumulate in the body, so we needn’t fret about that sea of toxins.

Genetic studies are proving strong associations between disease and the toxins in our food. Other studies, many of which are funded by the U.S. food industry, say the risk of disease from these chemicals is so minimal that a clear connection can’t be proven yet and may never be confirmed.

European countries and other nations throughout the world have banned many of the substances that are still widely used in the United States, including arsenic, several artificial food colors, brominated vegetable oil, Olestra, and the growth hormones rBGH and rBST.

Even those who claim that the body does a dandy job of filtering out the gunk cannot deny that our exposure to toxins is greater than ever before. And even if most of the toxins are passing through the body quickly, what potential damage are they doing if our exposure is consistent? Some scientists are conducting research that proves the damage from certain substances accumulates and over time leads to an increased risk of cancer and other diseases.

What are people to do in this era when scientific consensus on the best diet seems to constantly shift? Could a return to simple, real foods be a viable solution to our overly-processed diets?

Don’t Stress about Detoxing, Just Eat Clean

Supporters of clean eating are frustrated by the polarization of detoxing. Rather than completely bash detoxification or shout its benefits from rooftops, supporters of clean eating are seeking a balanced perspective on food. They ask, why not just eat unadulterated foods as close to their source as possible and limit consumption of manufactured and modified foods?

Eating whole, organic foods is one effective way to reduce your exposure to toxins. Yes, harmful chemicals will persist in our water and air, and we can’t do much about that except voice our concerns to politicians and vote with our dollar by purchasing organic, eco-friendly foods and products. But the more organic produce and whole grains we eat, the more disease-fighting phytochemicals we consume, which can reverse the effects of the chemicals we encounter in the environment.

Cancer patients can play it safe while improving their dietary health by incorporating more organic, whole foods into their weekly meal plans. Nutritionists who specialize in working with cancer patients are a fantastic resource for anyone who is open to one-on-one coaching. A number of cancer centers throughout the country offer nutritional counseling services, as well as group cooking classes and hands-on workshops. Some people with cancer have curbed symptoms, reduced side effects of treatment, and boosted immunity with dietary measures. Some examples include:

  • Chemotherapy: Some foods have a soothing effect on digestion during chemotherapy, like fresh ginger. Slice it and steep in hot water for tea, or chop and add to cooked dishes for great flavor and digestive relief.
  • Radiation Therapy: Dry mouth is a common side effect of radiation therapy, and eating soft foods that require little chewing can help people consume the calories they need during treatment. Soups, mashed vegetables and smoothies are good options.
  • Immunity: Phytochemicals, powerful little compounds found in plants, are proving effective at boosting immunity in current scientific studies. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with phytochemicals, and color variety is important. Opt for a rainbow of produce like raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes, leafy greens and carrots.

Marketing and media messages encourage the belief that we don’t have enough time to prepare healthy food. But we will have the time if we choose to make clean eating a priority. Cancer patients have even more incentive than the average person to eat a clean, healthy diet.

Ruth Heidrich says she owes her breast cancer remission to a whole-food, vegan diet. Paul Kraus credits his survival with mesothelioma cancer to a vegetarian diet and other natural therapies. When chemotherapy failed to help mesothelioma survivor James Broomer, he turned to the Budwig Protocol, which some refer to as “the anti-cancer diet.” Documentaries like Forks Over Knives and Food Matters offer personal testimonies of multiple forms of cancer and disease going into complete remission following a whole-foods diet.

With so many people testifying to the disease-reversing effects of a whole-food, clean diet, will you be the next to find yourself eating like a rabbit?

Read what other mesothelioma patients are saying about diet and nutrition on Facebook.

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  2. Djuric, Z., Chen, G., Doerge, D.R., Heilbrun, L.K., & Kucuk, O. (2001). Effect of soy isoflavone supplementation on markers of oxidative stress in men and women. Cancer Letters, 172(1): 1-6. 
  3. Ellin, A. (2009, Jan. 21). Flush Those Toxins! Eh, Not So Fast. New York Times.
  4. Harvard. (2013). Toxic Food Environment. Harvard School of Public Health.
  5. Heidrich, R. (2013). Ruth Heidrich Defeats Cancer and Osteoporosis. McDougall Health and Medical Center. 
  6. Kim, S. (2013, Jun. 26). 11 food ingredients banned outside the US that we eat. ABC News.  
  7. Tabish, A.M., Poels, K., Hoet, P., & Godderis, L. (2012). Epigentic factors in cancer risk: effect of chemical carcinogens on global DNA methylation pattern in human TK6 cells. PLoS One, 7(4): e34674. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034674  

Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. If you have a story idea for Michelle, please email her at michelle@asbestos.com.

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