Health experts and influencers are championing diet changes as an ultimate way to improve one's health, some going so far as to claim it can cure cancer.
A story in one of Lithuania's major online news outlets recently quoted a “doctor of science” claiming that a buckwheat diet helps cleanse the body and may even cure cancer. LRT FACTS examines the claim.
In the story published by lrytas.lt, Ksavera Vaištarienė, a healthy lifestyle expert, extolls the advantages of fasting which she says can help decontaminate the body, while a strict 10-day buckwheat diet can bring important health benefits.
“A woman was eating only buckwheat for 20 days and even overcame stage-one cancer,” Vaištarienė is quoted in the piece, adding that parsley tea goes well with the buckwheat diet.
Similar kinds of advice have been popular on social media. A ‘buckwheat challenge’ went viral on Facebook a few years ago, sparked by Vaištarienė's recommendations, with ‘buckwheaters’ documenting weight loss and claiming to beat various health problems.
No effect on survival rates
Healthy diet can indeed go a long way toward improving one's wellbeing, says Leonidas Gatijatullinas, an oncologist at Vilnius University's Institute of Oncology, but there is no scientific evidence that it can cure cancer.
“Proper diet makes you feel better, but it has no effect on [cancer patients'] survival rates,” he tells LRT.lt. “Patients who adjust their eating habits do not live longer than those who don't.”
Better diet and exercise improves wellbeing for cancer patients and healthy people alike – but that is no substitute for “traditional” cancer treatment, he says.
Moreover, alternative medicine – including diet, herbal supplements, exercise – can have important psychological effects, he says.
Oncological patients often get very little advice from doctors about what they can themselves do to feel better, beyond getting treatment. So once they take some control of their wellbeing, they feel much better, according to Gatijatullinas.
“Additional measures complement traditional medicine and respond to expectations,” he says, like getting advice about what to eat.
And once patients start adjusting their diet or taking herbal supplements, they feel in control again. “This is psychology, there's no other scientific explanation for that,” according to Gatijatullinas.
In general, there must not be any opposition between ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ medicine.
“Sometimes people say: I'll give up traditional treatment and will go for the non-traditional. But medicine is something that has been proven scientifically, while alternative medicine can complement it. There is no contradiction between the two,” Gatijatullinas sums up.
No starving out cancerous cells
There is a mistaken belief that if a person goes on a strict diet, then cancer cells are also denied nourishment, says phytotherapist Juozas Ruolia of Vilnius University's Institute of Oncology.
“There's conclusive evidence: you must first remove the cancerous cluster: by surgery, radiation, drugs. And then you can limit your diet,” he tells LRT.lt.
“Destroying the tumor with food – I have not seen a single patient to due that over my 20-year career,” he adds.
Better regulation for alternative medicine
Lithuania's Ministry of Health notes that public health insurance does not cover alternative cancer treatments, only those methods that have been scientifically shown to have “significant healing effects”.
Earlier this year, the Lithuanian parliament passed a law that, for the first time, introduced legal definitions and regulations for alternative medicine.
Read more: Lithuania legalises alternative medicine
“The new rules will help people make better choices of services and practices, understand better what is treatment and what is wellness,” says Odeta Vitkūnienė, the director of Personal Health Department at the Ministry of Health.
“Moreover, better regulation of this field will minimise risks for people's health and, if there is any, will allow them to demand compensation from service providers.”
She adds, however, that alternative treatment methods will not be covered by the government-run health insurance.
While alternative medical practices may be psychologically beneficial and more understandable to oncological patients, medical professionals warn that they cannot be anything more than a supplement to traditional cancer treatments: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.