Once a month I host a workshop at a local cancer support center. I present on a variety of topics within the field of nutrition that would be beneficial for those living with cancer and/or their caregivers. This past month I taught them quick and efficient ways to prep foods and how to create nutrient dense freezer meals that will sustain them the weeks they're going through chemotherapy (i.e. the weeks they have no energy to cook nor no desire to eat).
Part of our conversation included smoothies, which I promote like mad because they are so easy to customize, can be loaded with nutrients and superfoods, are easy to digest and make very portable snacks or meals.
In our area, doctors recommend to both those living with cancer and the elderly population that they drink something called Ensure, a prepared drink that touts high protein and calories. The idea is having a quick and easy drink available to help these people keep on weight and provide their body with nutrients, as there are a bunch of vitamins and minerals added to it.
So obviously upon learning this, I got straight to work researching. When someone is facing a life threatening illness, what they consume becomes even more important. Chemotherapy is supposed to wipe out cancer cells but it also wipes out all the good bacteria in the body. You know...the entire immune system. Because of this immune suppressing effect, so many people living with cancer end up battling secondary infections or illness which threaten their life sometimes more so than the cancer itself. So when dealing with cancer, what should be a priority is strengthening the immune system, feeding the body loads of nutrients while keeping protein, calories and fats high to avoid losing unhealthy amounts of weight. It's also a good idea to consume foods that will provide the body natural and sustainable energy while being easy to digest so the body can focus on healing. Quick and simple is key, because honestly, who wants to exert any effort prepping food when already feeling worn down and sick? I sure wouldn't.
The first thing I did was go to the grocery store and find the Ensure containers. A small pack of six 235 ml. bottles was $12.29. Pricey if you ask me.
Next of course I looked up the ingredients. And wow, was I sickened. I can't say I was surprised but it was probably worse than I was expecting. And it made me angry. Angry that medical professionals can recommend such CRAP to people whose lives are on the line. Here's the ingredient label:
Let's break down some of the basics on this label:
The second ingredient on the label is sugar - meaning there's lots of it in this drink. One teaspoon of sugar can suppress immune functioning for up to 6 hours. This is NOT what you want to consume when your body is fighting such a serious disease.
In terms of oils, Ensure contains high oleic safflower oil, canola oil and corn oil. All of these oils are highly inflammatory in the body. Inflammation occurs within the immune system as a response to a toxic or harmful substance entering the body. Repeated, or chronic inflammation leads to many health risks and concerns such as DNA damage, higher risks of cancer, autoimmune disease and joint pain. Why, why, why put oils into your body that will create an inflammatory response which (chronically) is directly related to illness?
CORN & SOY
Soy protein isolate, soy lecithin and corn oil are all listed on the ingredient label. Corn and soy are not only amongst two of the top allergens food-wise (so eating them will promote inflammation within the body) but they are both two of the most highly sprayed and processed crops in the world. This means you're ingesting large quantities of pesticides which has been linked to various cancers and other health concerns ranging from minor fatigue or mood changes to major concerns such as neurological damage. Clearly not a good match for someone trying to get well from cancer (or anyone period)
NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL FLAVOURS
I won't get into this one too much but just think about this - do you really want to be putting something that's labelled artificial into your body at any time? And natural flavours really aren't much different from artificial since labelling it as such only means the source it originated from needs to come from nature, but whatever happens after that is fair game (and lots happens afterward). Either way, "flavour" is a composition of chemical, preservatives and solvents which are NOT things you want in your body, causing disruptions of hormones, further inflammation and stress on the liver as it works to detox these substances
This ingredient has been directly linked to cancer. While the research (like with any topic) can be found to support the opposite, it still triggers and immune response and is linked to digestive disruption including ulcers, higher rates of GI cancers and irritation.
The good news is that Ensure is packed solid with vitamins and minerals...right?
When you first glance at the numbers, they look promising - vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, iron etc. But when you look at the ingredients, it's clear that the percentages of vitamins and minerals within Ensure aren't coming from a specific food themselves, the product is being fortified (or added in when it was never there to begin with) with these vitamins. When a vitamin/mineral is isolated and added in this way, they aren't as bioavailable as they are when they come from an original source (meaning your body isn't able to absorb it as well). So the amount of minerals and vitamins are almost irrelevant since your body isn't benefitting from them as it could if they were found in real foods.
So what can you do? If you know me at all, perhaps you've guessed - you make your own version of Ensure - one that's made from real foods and has a benefit to and within your body. I saved you some work though. I created one of my favourite smoothies, full of nutrient dense foods that PROMOTE health and have broken down some (approximate) comparisons as far as the nutritional profile goes. Let's examine that first and then I'll share my recipe with you.
225 calories 465 calories (this is GOOD calories)
15 g. protein 27 g. protein
6 g. fat (not a healthy source) 23 g. fat (HEALTHY fats!)
25% DI of iron 85% DI iron
25% DI of calcium 35% DI calcium
25% DI of B12 45% DI B12
I didn't break down the differences in every single trace mineral and vitamin listed, however, I think you get the idea. Not only are the numbers better in my smoothie, the quality of the ingredients, and therefore the positive affect within your body will help support and heal you in becoming well. I shared this recipe and handed out samples during my workshop last week and everyone said they loved the taste. Here it is:
1.5 cups filtered water
1/2 cup frozen organic mango
1/2 cup frozen organic raspberries
1 T. flax oil
1.5 T hemp hearts
1 t. blackstrap molasses
1 scoop Vega vanilla nutritional shake
That's it. Blend it all together and voila - your cells will sing with joy. AND it's way cheaper than Ensure.
A couple more tips when it comes to smoothies:
1. Once a week or whenever you feel you have energy, lay out a dozen or so glass containers and add all the dry ingredients to them (except the protein powder) and freeze. On the days you are lacking energy, just pour the water into your blender, and add in the flax oil, Vega and molasses, making it a bit simpler since everything else is measured and mixed up.
2. Canadian Tire (for us Canadian folk) sells these screw top containers here. You can make extra smoothie and pour the remains into these containers, screw the lid on and put in the freezer. On the days you aren't feeling great, pull it out of the freezer and either eat it with a spoon like ice cream or let it thaw out before drinking. (*note: I prefer using glass. If you are able to find a better alternative using a glass container, please let me know *)
I hope that was informative, and I hope this helps create conscious awareness and thinking when it comes to the recommendations from others in regards to what's best for your health. ESPECIALLY when you are already struggling with a serious illness.
It is my hope that you take the time to learn the tools and ideas that will serve your health, leaving you with energy and hope.