On food as medicine

I blog a lot about how food is medicine for eating disorders. Of course, it's not the only medicine: therapy (good therapy) is important, and medications also have their place for some people. Plus there's always the healing tincture of time as new patterns are laid down in the brain.

But the importance of food in cancer treatment has been overlooked--until now. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philly have hired a Certified Master Chef for their cafeteria.

With cancer, you've got to "bring a lot more nutrients to each spoonful of food," Certified Master Chef Jack Shoop is learning.

Malnutrition is a big problem in cancer patients, and it plays a role in one-fifth of cancer deaths. "Yet nutrition too often is an afterthought until someone's already in trouble," says the USA Today article.

Maybe this is my ED history talking, but I don't understand our society's blithe tolerance of malnutrition--not in people with eating disorders, and not in people with cancer. We can't get it through our thick skulls that a little malnutrition is somehow okay, that it won't hurt. But nausea and lack of appetite are known problems with many cancer treatments, so it's not like doctors should be caught off guard when a patient finds it difficult to eat.

The [National Cancer Institute] defines patients as at-risk when they've lost more than 10% of their usual weight. Other research suggests that patients who lose more than 5% of their pre-cancer weight have a worse prognosis than people who can hang onto the pounds.

"Patients who are well-nourished as they're going through treatment have shorter hospital stays, are better able to tolerate treatment," not to mention have better quality of life, says Colleen Doyle, nutrition chief at the society, which offers nutrition advice through its hot line at 1-800-ACS-2345.

I'm glad the NCI has this hotline and is tackling the problem of malnutrition head-on. It would be nice if they didn't have all of the obesity-is-giving-you-cancer-OMG stories, but I'll applaud what is good.

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Laura Collins said...

My theory on this is that unlike during most of human history - when people had few choices and ate the same things they'd always eaten and the same as those around them - we have turned food choice into a magic show.

We imbue foods with great moral import and there is always a new incantation going around ("ANTI-OXIDANTS!" "TRANS-FAT FREE!").

If foods have magic properties then we get divorced from the idea that our bodies need and want food. We are casting spells instead of nourishing ourselves. We are expressing ourselves and our mojo instead of sharing a meal.

At least that's my thinking.

maddog said...

Thanks for this entry. It reminds me that food should also be seen as medicine for frail elderly persons. Near the end of my dad's life, he wasn't eating much, and it just didn't seem to be of much concern to his doctors. At that point, he wasn't acutely ill, and so I don't think it was a matter of people thinking, oh, he's sick and going to die anyway. They just didn't pay serious attention to what the malnutrition was doing to his health. I think that the malnutrition was causing the frailness.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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