If your doctor has recommended that you follow an immunosuppressed diet (aka the neutropenic diet) it’s to prevent food borne bugs from causing serious illness when cancer treatment has weakened your immune system. You will need to stay away from many foods such as undercooked or raw fish, meats and eggs, live fermented foods like yogurt or kimchi, and prepared foods from salad bars or hot tables in case they haven’t been stored at the proper temperatures. There’s still a lot to eat. Well cooked meat, eggs and fish are OK, as are cooked fruits vegetables. And as long as they are thoroughly washed before eating, you can eat many raw fruits and veggies too including leafy greens.
The holiday season, and its focus on food-centric celebrations, can be particularly tricky to navigate if you’re on an immunosuppressed (formerly neutropenic) diet. There is often a rise in the levels of food poisoning at this time, due to careless food handling practices in the home so it’s best to err on the side of caution. The following 5 tips can help to keep you safe, and allow you to enjoy celebrating the season with your loved ones.
- 1. When doing a large shopping session for the holidays, pick up chilled or frozen food last. Place these items in a cooler bag if you have to travel a long distance to get home. Remember to bring hand sanitizer with you, and use it frequently when shopping to minimize the risk of infection.
2. If traveling to a potluck party, inform the host ahead of time of your restrictions. Bring suitable food with you which you know is safe for you to eat. Ask where products such as potato salad have been prepared, as foods from deli counters are not safe for those with suppressed immune systems. It is always better to be safe than sorry so remember: if in doubt, leave it out.
- 3. Be mindful of the length of time that food is sitting out. Foods containing eggs, dairy, or mayonnaise should not be at room temperature for more than 1 hour. Meats like turkey or ham should not be at room temperature for more than 2 hours. It may be useful to use ice or a small heat source to keep food out of the bacteria-breeding zone between 40°F and 140°F.
- 4. Be especially cautious with leftovers following large meals. Cool any leftovers at room temperature and then transfer them to the fridge within 1–2 hours. Eat leftovers within 24 hours. Don’t re-heat food more than once, and never reheat cooked rice.
- 5. Ask for help! Dealing with cancer treatment and its side-effects can be exhausting. Do not put pressure on yourself to do too much if you’re not able. Focus on using your energy to enjoy spending time with loved ones, even if it means putting the traditional fare on hold for the day. It is also important to respect your feelings. If you are not feeling up to celebrating the usual way, communicate this to your loved ones.
We hope that these tips may provide some help, and allow you to have a safe, healthy holiday season.