Comfort Food

SSHRC-funded researcher studying plant-based nutrition for those who have cancer, and those who don’t

When Amy Symington came home from university one day for a visit, the last thing her father expected to hear was that she had become a vegetarian. That’s because home was a beef and dairy farm in southwestern Ontario.

“My dad was less than pleased when I first became vegetarian and even used to exclaim regularly that I had been ‘brainwashed,’ ” she recalls. “I should mention that his diet is mostly plant-based now as well.”

Shortly after that, in 2006, her mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and was not expected to live out the year. Symington devoted herself to becoming her mother’s caregiver, and created a “Mom’s Getting Better Folder” with recipes for plant-based meals to help her mother as best as she could.

“I am happy to say that she lived two years longer than was first anticipated, and she was able to see my brother get married and to celebrate her 60th birthday,” she says. “This is obviously an anecdotal scenario, but I do believe her diet helped her longevity.”

Today, Symington is vegan, a chef and a professor of nutrition at George Brown College. She is using her passion for, and knowledge about, plant-based nutrition to help other families affected by cancer. With a $240,000 Community and College Social Innovation Fund grant from SSHRC, she is developing the “Community Guide to Cancer Nutrition,” which is expected to be released in December 2018.

Symington is currently reviewing literature for the guide on how nourishment from vegan dishes can benefit people with cancer, at various stages of the disease.

“The research that we have reviewed on each stage so far is unanimous that a plant-focused diet is best,” says Symington. “There are specific nutrients that one will want to focus on more than others. For example, during treatment it is important that the survivor consume high-protein, iron-rich and overall nutrient-dense foods to aid with repair of cell damage from chemotherapy, avoid anemia and to encourage a healthy blood count so that treatment may continue.”

Vegan cuisine is also providing professional satisfaction as she continues to discover, with the help of her students in the Culinary Management Nutrition program (who are equally enthusiastic about the possibilities plant-based cooking offers), tasty dishes that can convert even the most die-hard meat lover.

In fact, she created a “Not-Just-Supper” event at the cancer support organization, Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto (named after comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989). Held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, it allows Symington to test out new vegan dishes on club members. These recipes will form a large component of her guide, which will also include information on cancer prevention and management.