Cancer care through cooking: how a GBC research team created a food guide for those impacted by cancer

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In partnership with Gilda's Club Toronto, a George Brown College (GBC) research team created an evidence-based nutrition resource for Canadians impacted by cancer.

In 2009, Amy Symington was working on her Culinary Management – Nutrition diploma at George Brown when she started to volunteer at Gilda's Club Toronto, doing culinary nutrition workshops for the members. Among these were supper clubs held two nights a week to help facilitate attendance at evening-based group meetings.

Amy Symington in kitchen

"Myself and the team of volunteers would create health-promoting meals, and then we'd all sit down at these long tables together and share," Symington says. "But we found the food was a gateway to a much deeper, meaningful and emotionally supportive conversation."

And so, the supper club program was born. Eventually, the team received an NSERC College and Community Social Innovation Fund grant to formalize the research in 2016, with the aim of researching, testing and producing a comprehensive, informative and accessible handbook on cancer nutrition. Symington was the principal investigator for the project, as well as a nutrition professor, chef and researcher at George Brown. All the work was conducted at GBC's Chef School and Gilda's Club Toronto.

"I often say food, nutrition, diet—it's the forgotten component in cancer care," Symington says. "As soon as they leave the hospital with a diagnosis, often the first question people have is about nutrition. It's a way to be in control of the situation, something they can do themselves."

While recommendations on specific foods to help with cancer care and side effects existed, the team found they were scattered in different places and much less guidance was available on how to practically incorporate them into a diet.

The project produced three resources: The Community Guide to Cancer Nutrition — first created in 2018 and updated in 2023 — is a guide on what to consume for cancer prevention, during cancer treatment, and to prevent recurrence; The Long Table Cookbook: Plant-based Recipes for Optimal Health, published by Douglas & McIntyre; and the Community Guide to Cancer Nutrition Companion Cookbook: Plant-based Cooking for Side Effects of Cancer and its Treatment.

In its final year, Christine Hotz came on board as the research coordinator for the project and was key in helping to ensure that the guidelines were based on the most up-to-date information on nutrition and cancer care. Christine, along with having a PhD in nutritional science, is a recent graduate of the Culinary Management – Nutrition program at GBC. 

Christine Hotz

"It's so empowering to look at this information about nutrition and diet and see how important it can be for cancer and other chronic diseases. It's something the patient can do to help take matters into their own hands and not be solely dependent on the medical system," Hotz says.

"Having come into the culinary nutrition field with a nutrition science background, it was very gratifying and encouraging to become involved in a project that brought these two areas together to address a critical need for society." 

What the evidence kept showing is the important part nutrition can play not just in chronic disease but in everyday health and well-being — especially when centred around plant-based foods.

"It's very striking to me how important a plant-based diet can be for health," Hotz says. "It's not just about the fibre, the antioxidants, and all these phytonutrients. It's all of it put together. The more you read, the more it seems that eating a healthy plant-based diet is just a good thing for everybody and the planet."

The team plans to share hard copies of the nutrition guide and cookbook with other cancer care affiliates in Canada and the United States as a model for running similar health–promoting and socially and emotionally supportive supper clubs.

The Community Guide to Cancer Nutrition and the Companion Cookbook are free for download at Gilda's Club Toronto's website. The Long Table Cookbook: Plant-based Recipes for Optimal Health is published through Douglas & MacIntyre. It is available for purchase through the same website, with the author's proceeds going to Gilda's.