Phytochemicals

Last Modified: March 25, 2010

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Question

Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"

I am being treated for colon cancer with chemo. My friend told me I need phytochemicals. What are they and where do I get them?

Answer

Karen Wagner MS, RD, LDN, Clinical dietitian specialist for the Abramson Cancer Center, responds:

Thank you for the great question. Let me first explain what phytochemicals are, and then tackle the question of whether you need them during chemotherapy.

Phytochemicals are chemicals made by plants. In the last twenty years or so, many phytochemicals have been studied with regard to their effects on cancer in addition to other diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. One of the most famous plant chemicals lately has been something called resveratrol, which is a phytochemical in red grapes and red wine (as well as walnuts, plums, and red onions) that, in test tubes, seems to help immune cells. However, besides this famous phytochemical red grapes have thousands of other phytochemicals and every plant food, from apples to zucchini, from almonds to pinto beans, has different and interesting phytochemicals. As of now, the best way to get phytochemicals is by eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes or beans, and whole grains every day.

I love phytochemicals and find them fascinating, however, they are not usually the most important nutritional consideration during cancer treatment. During treatment, the goals of nutritional therapy are to keep you hydrated, to maintain your lean muscle mass and keep your weight stable and to minimize any treatment related side effects. If you can do all these things and still get a variety of fruits and vegetables, that is great. However if diarrhea or nausea or poor appetite or weight loss become an issue, managing these effects needs to take precedence over consuming lots of fruits and vegetables. After treatment, working with a survivorship program like the one on Oncolink can connect you with resources for healthy eating and including lots of phytochemicals in your diet.

This question and answer was part of the OncoLink Brown Bag Chat Series, Exercise, Nutrition and Cancer Webchat. View the entire transcript here.