Here’s a trivia question for you – how many cells make up the human body? If you said 37 trillion, you’re right. Each of our 37 trillion cells works tirelessly towards one goal – to keep us alive and healthy. The only catch is that we have to give our cells the tools they need to do their work. This article discusses my personal journey to find ways to do that.
I have been a CLL patient since 2011. Like many cancer patients, I was curious about what I could do to give my cells the nutrients needed to increase my odds of survival, in addition to drug therapy. As someone with a background in clinical research, I reviewed the scientific literature and found that indeed there are steps I can take to improve my health outcomes. This article is about how I have chosen to fuel my body to increase the likelihood of remaining in good health as I live with CLL.
Interestingly, there are only three things that our bodies can use to keep our 37 trillion cells happy and healthy: air, water, and food. Air and water are essential, of course, and the food we eat must provide all of the macronutrients needed for energy and the micronutrients required for our cells to build and repair themselves and regulate bodily processes. Because these nutrients must come entirely through our food, the importance of eating a healthy diet cannot be overstated.
There are several health priorities that I have as a CLL survivor that have motivated me to find more healthy ways to eat. First, I know that I need to avoid getting other diseases that may complicate the treatment of CLL and jeopardize my survival. Heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are serious chronic diseases that can lead to disability and death on their own, and they are all too common in the U.S. I need to eat in a way that greatly reduces my risk of developing these and other diseases.
Second, I want to reduce my risk of getting other cancers. A small proportion of cancer cases are caused by inherited genetic defects while most are due to environment and lifestyle choices.1 This means that there are many things I can do to reduce my risk of developing other cancers. In addition, I learned from my doctors that having CLL puts me at increased risk of developing other types of cancer, and some CLL treatments further increase that risk. I want to eat in a way that gives me the best possible chance of preventing other cancers. Having one type of cancer is plenty for me, thank you!
Third, I need a diet that enables me to be active and physically fit. The dramatic health benefits of physical fitness are well known, and to get those benefits, I need to be at a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese would limit my ability to exercise and engage in the activities I enjoy, and would increase my risks of developing chronic diseases and other types of cancer. So, I need a way of eating that enables me to easily maintain a healthy weight.
Last but certainly not least, I want to eat in a way that will help keep CLL in check by equipping my immune system cells with the nutrients they need to do their jobs. This reason needs no explanation!
It is a tall order for any type of diet to accommodate these four different goals: to prevent chronic diseases, to reduce the risk of getting other cancers, to promote a healthy body weight, and to help keep CLL in check. The first step was to determine if my present diet was okay as it was. What I learned led me to conclude that I was not doing my body any favors and that my food choices were unlikely to allow me to reach my health goals.
I was eating the “standard American diet” (SAD) – which is aptly named. It’s a pattern of consuming substantial amounts of red meat, sugary desserts, high-fat foods, and refined grains. It also typically contains high-fat dairy products, high-sugar drinks, large amounts of sodium, and high intake of processed meat. Research shows that the SAD is positively correlated with obesity, many chronic diseases including heart disease and diabetes, and cancer.2 This got my attention.
Our eating patterns in the U.S. are not trending in a healthy direction. From 1970 to 2008, our per capita consumption of calories increased by nearly one-quarter and about 10% of all calories were from high-fructose corn syrup.3 A review of eating habits in the U.S. in 2004 found that about 75% of restaurant meals were from fast-food restaurants, and nearly half of the meals ordered were hamburgers, french fries, or poultry — and about one third of orders included a carbonated beverage drink. Clearly, these eating habits aren’t fostering good health.
A recent study from the University of North Carolina found that Americans get a whopping 61% of their calories from highly processed foods, which are things like soda, cookies, snack foods and candy.4 I learned that most highly processed foods are designed for just one purpose: to taste good so that we’ll buy more of them. They favor taste and convenience over nutritional value, and eating them tends to crowd out our interest in whole foods like fruits and vegetables that contain the vital nutrients our cells desperately need. This is why some nutritional experts say that we have become a nation of overweight but undernourished people. The Catch-22 is that because we’re undernourished our bodies want more food – so we eat but feel unsatisfied because processed foods lack nutrition, and so we eat more. This vicious cycle contributes to the obesity epidemic.
In addition, I found that the SAD can also cause our tissues and organs be chronically inflamed. Acute inflammation is essential for fighting infections – but processed foods along with an excess of animal foods can lead ongoing inflammation that has been linked to many chronic diseases, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease. When inflammation persists or serves no purpose, it damages the body and causes illness. Not a desirable situation for us CLL’ers.
At this point, I knew about the kinds of foods that were not providing much nourishment to my 37 trillion cells. Sadly, I was eating a ‘SAD’ diet and it was clear that I needed to move away from it. But what should eat instead?
I anticipated that sorting this out would be challenging and complex, and was concerned that there might not be enough scientific evidence to support any meaningful conclusions. Fortunately, the science on healthy diets was clearer than I anticipated. It can be essentially summed up in the following quote by author Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”5 “Eat food” means to eat actual food, sometimes called whole food – vegetables, fruits, and whole grains – rather than processed products such as crackers, luncheon meats, chicken nuggets, and soda. “Not too much” is self-explanatory. “Mostly plants” refers to unprocessed or minimally processed plant foods like broccoli, apples, beans, and brown rice. Essentially, it is returning to the whole foods that people ate for millennia before highly processed foods and industrial livestock production existed.
Scientific evidence demonstrating the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet has been generated by many investigators, one of the first being Dr. T. Colin Campbell who conducted the China Study, a 20-year partnership of Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. This large epidemiologic study showed higher consumption of animal-based foods to be associated with more chronic diseases, while those who ate primarily a plant-based diet were the healthiest.6 Another is Caldwell Esselstyn, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic who demonstrated that cardiovascular disease, which has been the number one cause of death in the U.S. since 1921, could be prevented and even reversed through a plant-based diet.7 Following in his footsteps was Dean Ornish, MD, who developed a comprehensive lifestyle program for reversing heart disease that was founded on a whole foods plant-based diet.8 Dr. Ornish has since conducted ground-breaking cancer research in collaboration with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, demonstrating that a plant-based diet in combination with exercise and stress-reduction can slow the progression of prostate cancer, improve epigenetic markers, and lengthen the protective caps on chromosomes.9
The Adventist Health Studies are a series of long-term research studies exploring potential links between lifestyle, diet, and disease among Seventh-day Adventists. Many of these individuals follow a low fat vegetarian diet, but about one-half follow the SAD, which permits comparisons between eating patterns.10 They found that the more closely the study participants followed a vegetarian diet, the lower their risks for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.11 Further, they found reduced cancer risks in those who ate more fiber from fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans.12 Those with high consumption of cooked green vegetables, brown rice, dried fruit, and legumes were had a decreased risk of developing colon polyps, a precursor to colon cancer. Individuals with the lowest overall cancer risk were vegetarians who did not eat red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy products more once per month.11
In summary, the research evidence suggests that the following diet protects and promotes good health: a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and soy products; little or no red meat; low in sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and white flour; high in omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, flax oil, and plankton-based oils; and low in trans fats, saturated fats, and hydrogenated fats.13,14 That is the diet I chose to adopt 3 years ago. People usually make a gradual transition to a new pattern of eating, but I made the switch all at once. Fortunately, I found an abundance of helpful information and recipes available online, and some of those resources are provided below.
I have found that adhering to a plant-based diet is not difficult if I keep a supply of healthy food available. As a busy person, one of the most helpful strategies has been to prepare large batches of food that I freeze in portion-sized containers. In addition, many healthy meals using fresh ingredients can be quickly made up on the spot. In case my supplies run low, I maintain a reserve of quick but healthy foods on hand such as nuts, fresh and frozen fruit, and frozen veggie burgers. Most restaurants today have plant-based entrees and many offer a range of options. It’s not as difficult as you might think.
Finally, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If a complete transition to a plant-based diet isn’t for you, shifting your eating habits to include more healthy foods and fewer unhealthy foods is a viable option. The more closely you follow a plant-based diet, the more benefits you will reap. Your 37 trillion cells will appreciate every bit of good nutrition that you can provide.
Jim Werner resides with his wife and 3 dogs in Brunswick, OH.
The Vegetarian Resource Group: http://www.vrg.org/
Happy Cow: http://www.happycow.net/vegan_diet.html
Kaiser Permanente’s Guide to a Plant Based Diet: http://share.kaiserpermanente.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/The-Plant-Based-Diet-booklet.pdf
Dr. Dean Ornish’s book: The Spectrum, A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health. Ballantine Books, 2008.
- Anand P, Kunnumakkara AB, Sundaram C, et al. Cancer is a preventable disease that requires major lifestyle changes. Pharm Res. 2008;25(9):2097-2116.
- Vargas AJ, Thompson PA. Diet and nutrient factors in colorectal cancer risk. Nutr Clin Pract. 2012;27(5):613-623.
- Lobb A. Eating Habits — A look at the Average U.S. Diet. The Wall Street Journal. September 17, 2005.
- Poti JM, Mendez MA, Ng SW, Popkin BM. Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(6):1251-1262.
- Pollan M. In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books; 2008.
- Campbell T, Campbell TC. The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books; 2006.
- Esselstyn CB, Jr., Gendy G, Doyle J, Golubic M, Roizen MF. A way to reverse CAD? J Fam Pract. 2014;63(7):356-364b.
- Ornish D. …And the only side-effects are good ones. Lancet Oncol. 2011;12(10):924-925.
- Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, et al. Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2013;14(11):1112-1120.
- Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1607S-1612S.
- Tantamango-Bartley Y, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fan J, Fraser G. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2013;22(2):286-294.
- Orlich MJ, Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets in the Adventist Health Study 2: a review of initial published findings. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100 Suppl 1:353S-358S.
- WHO. World Health Report: Cancer. 2015; http://www.who.int/whr/1997/media_centre/press_release/en/index1.html. Accessed December 1, 2015.
- Ornish D. Holy Cow! What’s good for you is good for our planet: comment on “Red Meat Consumption and Mortality”. Archives of internal medicine. 2012;172(7):563-564.
Originally published in The CLL Tribune Q4 2015.