One of the many ways cancer can disrupt one’s life has to do with diet. The disease’s physical toll can make it difficult for cancer patients to muster the strength and focus to cook for themselves. As well, it can hinder the body’s ability to process certain foods.

Since 2008, cancer patients in Toronto have received extra support with managing their dietary challenges. That’s the year George Brown College’s Centre for Hospitality & Culinary Arts joined with the University Health Network’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre to launch BRUNCH—Building Recipes and Understanding Nutrition for Cancer-survivor Health. The one-year feasibility study, which was funded by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, focused on introducing meal options geared specifically to former colon cancer patients.

“Once someone has been treated for colon cancer, the likely impact is that their culinary needs, desires and abilities will change direction. We wanted to look at how to enhance the nutritional culinary experience for survivors of colon cancer and, ultimately, improve their quality of life,” says Sara Urowitz, who is now the executive director of the Canadian Cancer Research Alliance. Urowitz was one of the study’s principal investigators, when she was the manager of the study site, Princess Margaret’s ELLICSR facility, which is a collaborative space for research into health, wellness and cancer survivorship. 

The BRUNCH study involved CHCA faculty members Winnie Chiu, principal investigator, and chef James Smith leading 29 Culinary Management—Nutrition program students in developing specialized recipes at George Brown in conjunction with input from the hospital’s dietitians. The goal was to create meals that were not only nutritious and affordable, but also tasty. “George Brown brought the positive eating experience,” said Chiu when the study unfolded, adding that healthy food on its own is not enough: “How can you incorporate healthy ingredients such as tofu and fish into a recipe, and turn it into a tasty dish?”

With guidance from Colorectal Cancer Canada, Urowitz chose 18 colon cancer survivors to participate in the study who were experiencing side effects such as digestive issues and fatigue. They received 12 recipes for dishes that were relatively rich in fibre and low in saturated fat, with examples including vegetable hash pancakes, vegetarian chili, Thai fish and polenta fries. George Brown faculty and students also conducted cooking classes at ELLICSR to guide participants in preparing the meals. As well, each participant received a take-home kit with the recipes, required ingredients and how-to videos.

One of the hosts of the cooking demonstration videos was Geremy Capone, then a final-year student in the diploma program. Together with Princess Margaret dietitians and other George Brown students, he worked to present the meal preparation steps in a way that was easy to follow.

“We wanted to make the recipes as accessible as possible, pairing nutrition tips with cooking tips to make them easy to master by an audience that might not have the highest cooking confidence,” Capone says.

BRUNCH was a resounding success: all of the participants indicated that the cooking demos and education provided useful information, and that they enjoyed the flavour of the food, while 88% said they were likely to include the recipes in their diet. Since then, ELLICSR has expanded on the study, and today offers a diverse range of culinary programming for all types of cancer patients under the Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship Program with Capone, who, since 2011, has served as its wellness chef.

“BRUNCH was the first cooking and nutrition study launched out of ELLICSR,” Capone says. “It allowed us to evolve into an important service and resource for cancer patients.”

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