Nutritionism in Cancer Culture


When it comes to nutrition, conflicting ideas can often cloud vision.

Many of us believe that in addition to our science, our nutrition will help us heal, repair and improve our health. And the scientific evidence indeed points us there. Research shows that one third of the most common cancers in the US could be prevented with what we know right now about food, nutrition and diet (Anand et al; AICR CRU; Colditz et al). That’s over 330,000 cancers annually that never have to happen.

So why is it that we cannot agree on what it means to eat healthy? When there are endless diets, doctors, nutritionists and bloggers with just as many opinions, it seems that often we choose to have more confidence in evangelic anecdotes of food rather than implement the scientific evidence.

The act of eating is one of the most personal behaviors that we engage in daily. We hold certain beliefs and attitudes about what to eat, when to eat, how to eat, with whom to eat and more. We are guided, often unconsciously by beliefs or “-isms” like egalitarianism, hedonism, utilitarianism, humanism, idealism and others. The idea of nutritionism is something that I’ve observed for years among the “cancer culture.” Ideas held in nutritionism vary widely and can be as unique as the individual themselves. Sometimes patients come in with strongly held beliefs, other times patients are sponges willing to absorb from everyone and anything.

Maybe one of the reasons there is such a range of competing diets and opinions is because we don’t agree on what “health” itself is. Is it simply the absence of disease? Or is it management of disease? A mindset? A feeling? Fundamentals of healthy living are endorsed by a veritable “who’s who” in medicine, nutrition, public health, cuisine and pop culture. While there truly are some disagreements that represent legitimate uncertainties, which indicate the need for future research to elucidate what we don’t yet know, there are also the things of morning shows. While to focus on the argument may be tantalizing, it often leads to public doubt and, for cancer patients, an overwhelming sense of confusion and even panic.

Ironically, the basic tenets of eating a healthy diet have withstood the confusion and contradictions. In reality, so many of competing dietary ideologies, whether it’s Mediterranean, vegan, paleo, macrobiotic, etc., are more alike than different, though it is their differences on display. People are hungry for guidance and expert knowledge while at the same time being drowned by it.

If we take a break from debating diets, nutrients and superfoods and get back to the basics of eating well, we will all be healthier, whatever that may mean. I encourage my patients to "think macro." Focus on overall diet instead of getting caught up in one food or nutrient. Eating broccoli once or exercising once does not a healthy lifestyle make. Enjoying an occasional treat does not ruin it, either.

It may not be sexy, but eat real food, whole food. Eat more vegetables. Enjoy whole fruits. Include beans and lentils. Incorporate healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil. Eat more whole grains, not just the whole grain products. Reduce added sugars. Reduce processed foods. Avoid trans fats. Drink more water. Stay active, even if that means limiting stretches of sitting. Manage stress so it doesn’t manage you. Create bonds with friends and family. And when you have a “snaccident,” don't sweat it.

Everyone who has ever been touched by cancer has a unique story. In 1971 President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act and for more than four decades we have continued to wage a war on the insidious, deleterious thing. Our continued commitment to this war no doubt means enlisting the best medical and scientific minds around the world. It also means elevating the priority we commit to food, diet and nutrition. We have split the atom, touched the moon and mapped the human genome. As individuals, we can all eat a little better. As a society, we need to embrace nutrition and wellness as an opportunity to reduce the collective cancer toll and to improve our cancer prevention strategies.

Amanda Bontempo, MS RD CDN

Twitter @amandabontempo

Instagram @amandabonbon

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