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The Role of Diet in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

In science and medicine, information is constantly changing and may become out-of-date as new data emerge. All articles and interviews are informational only, should never be considered medical advice, and should never be acted on without review with your health care team.

Reviewed by Dr. Brian Koffman

Once you receive a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL), it is common for the doctor to recommend “active surveillance” where the disease is monitored but no treatment is started. This can be a frustrating time of worry, but there are things you can control, like your diet and exercise. In this interview, Dr. Brian Koffman spoke with Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff, a physician specializing in complex, chronic, mysterious illnesses. They discussed the role of diet and nutrition in CLL.

What can patients do?

Patients often want to take a more active role in their health. Diet is an excellent place to start because you choose what to eat at least thrice daily. The standard American diet is well-known to be less than optimal for health. Plant-based diets are a popular option to explore.

What are some of the different kinds of plant-based diets?

Vegan means you only eat plant foods and do not eat animal-derived products such as meat, dairy, or eggs. There are many variations of vegetarian diets, which are primarily plant-based and may include some animal products. Some people choose to consume dairy products; others prefer to include fish. In general, vegetarians avoid consuming animal meat for health or ethical or religious reasons.

What are some of the cautions when starting on a plant-based diet?

When people start on plant-based diets, they may not have all the information they need to make wise choices. Just because a food is “plant-based” doesn’t mean it is healthy. Tortilla chips are made from plants, but that doesn’t mean they should be your first choice. Intentional and mindful meal planning is vital to achieving a healthy diet. A poorly designed diet may lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Why does diet matter for CLL?

It’s easy to attribute symptoms to a disease like CLL. Still, it’s also important to consider whether you’re eating a complete diet. Nutritional deficiencies can cause symptoms as well. Is the fatigue you feel because of the CLL, or is it because your iron is low? To achieve optimal health, we want to minimize interference factors such as poor nutrition to maximize your health and response to treatment. While dietary changes will not cure CLL, we also don’t want dietary insufficiencies or poor nutrition to worsen things.

What can patients and healthcare professionals learn from this article?

When patients have symptoms and get a workup, they are rarely asked about their diet. However, nutritional deficiencies can cause or exacerbate certain symptoms. This article on plant-based diets is a tool to empower patients and healthcare professionals who are interested in addressing the dietary challenges of these types of diets, specifically concerning deficiencies in both macronutrients (protein, essential fatty acids) and micronutrients (vitamin B12, iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin D). The article guides seven practical questions that all practitioners can introduce into their patient assessments and clinical reasoning. These seven questions also support increased patient nutrition knowledge.

Links and Resources:

Watch the interview here:

The Role of Diet in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) with Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff

The article that they talk about in this interview can be found here: Nutritional Assessment of the Symptomatic Patient on a Plant-Based Diet: Seven Key Questions

Take care of yourself first.

Ann Liu, PhD

CLL Society - Living With CLL
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