Eating Well Part 2: finding a nutritional therapist

Nutrition has become a really important part of supporting myself through treatment, as it makes sense to me to provide my body with the best raw materials possible to carry out its repair processes. As I qualified as a nutritional therapist a few years ago I was already familiar with this approach to nutrition, but I realise most people will be more familiar with dietitians (who do a really important job, but within a medical framework). There is a useful summary of the differences between nutritional therapy and dietetics here if you are interested.

Supporting people with cancer was only covered lightly in my training, so I sought out someone with specialist knowledge to support me with an individually tailored programme. I really didn’t feel it would be a good use of my energy or all that healthy for me emotionally to suddenly try to research everything for myself from scratch.

I am fortunate to have found a nutritional therapist who is extremely experienced and knowledgeable. It was really important to me that any advice was research-based, and in particular that any supplements I take are safe and won’t interfere with my medical treatment.

If you are interested in finding someone to support you, I would say looking for a practitioner with experience of supporting people with cancer (ideally the type of cancer you have) is important.

How to find a nutritional therapist

There is a searchable database of qualified nutritional therapists on the website of the professional body BANT. All BANT members have completed a recognised qualification and have to keep up-to-date by completing a specified number of hours of additional training each year. Whilst the website shows you practitioners in your area, it doesn’t necessarily show the areas they specialise in.

Nutritionist Resource offers a bit more information, but to be honest nutritional therapists who specialise in supporting people with cancer can be few and far between. I would research people in your area and e-mail them to ask what their experience is.

When it comes to supplements, don’t be scared to really grill people on the evidence their recommendations are based on. Although I personally think specific supplements can be really helpful, you are much better off not taking any than risking taking something that will reduce the efffectiveness of your treatment (which is possible!) or may interact with your medications and worsen side effects. Food should be the primary focus.

Obviously it’s not possible for everyone to see a nutritional therapist, whether due to geography or finances, so coming up in the next post are a couple of books that I’ve found helpful in giving a really sensible, balanced overview of nutrition for supporting yourself during and after treatment.

Eating Well Part 1: the challenges

Nutrition can be a bit of a minefield these days, whether you are coping with an illness or not, but possibly even more so when it comes to supporting yourself during cancer treatment. On the one hand, the official advice seems to boil down to follow a standard healthy diet, and possibly add high calorie foods if you are struggling to maintain your weight during treatment. On the other, you have people from various camps recommending going vegan, or ketogenic, or green juicing six times a day. Even as someone with a professional background in nutrition (but no specialised knowledge or experience of supporting people with cancer), I find it can be a source of great anxiety and can only imagine how confused someone with standard nutritional knowledge might feel.

My personal philosophy about nutrition in general is there is no one perfect diet that is suitable for everyone. Whether it be due to physical factors such as variations in our genetic make-up, composition of our gut bacteria, or the way our immune system is programmed, or other equally important considerations such as personal preferences and cultural beliefs, different things suit different people. In a way this can be very empowering, but it also often means a lot of experimentation to find what suits you.

Working out what to eat during cancer treatment adds a further layer of complication, as so many aspects can affect digestion and appetite. Whether it be the side effects of chemo, the drugs that go alongside it, antibiotics, or a physical obstruction to your digestive system, your normal eating habits may go completely out the window.

I also think it’s really important to consider the psychological and emotional aspects of changing your diet. While there may be benefits to adding or removing certain foods in theory, if you struggle or find things overly restrictive you can end up creating stress and anxiety that outweighs the benefit of the changes. So my philosophy is ‘be kind to yourself’. If you decide to make a change, do it gradually, make sure you have enough alternatives that you know you can eat on hand before removing anything, and don’t beat yourself up if the only food you can face eating one day is completely the opposite of what you’re aiming for.

Coming up next time – finding individualised nutritional support.