Nutrition is an important aspect of everyone’s health, but it becomes even more essential for those in treatment for or recovering from cancer. Individuals undergoing cancer treatment have very specific nutritional needs. Because of the treatments they receive, they need help to aid the body as it recovers.
Cancer and cancer treatments can have many side effects. The most common cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, and immunotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting, low blood cell counts, decreased appetite, weight loss, constipation and/or diarrhea, mouth sores, and taste changes.
As chemotherapy works to target the cancerous cells, healthy cells are also destroyed, which not only influences how the body tolerates food and how it tastes and smells, but is the root cause of the majority of chemo treatment side effects. And when these side effects are coupled with a decreased appetite, malnutrition becomes a serious concern for many people.
Regardless of the type of cancer, being aware of nutrient intake is essential during treatment. When chemotherapy is the first line of treatment, making sure the body takes in enough protein and calories is essential. It is important to get enough nutrients into the body’s healthy cells to allow them to function at their best. You may need to alter eating patterns to get maximum nutrition delivered to the body in an easy and tolerable way, perhaps through frequent small meals. Ideally, both individuals and their caregivers should consider planning meals ahead to both manage side effects and help keep their bodies strong.
Fruits and vegetables are antioxidant powerhouses. While medical teams usually advise you to avoid supplements during treatment, it is safe — and beneficial — to get antioxidants from fruits and vegetables. Go for green, cruciferous veggies like cabbage, kale, and cauliflower if you are able to tolerate the taste during treatment. They are rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants. Or go for orange beta-carotene rich carrots and squashes.
And then there are red beets, white onions, and garlic. For an additional boost, serve these delicious vegetables with an oil-based dressing. Not only will the oil add flavor and calories, the fat will help your body to absorb oil-soluble nutrients like beta-carotene. Colorful antioxidant fruits from the citrus family and summer favorites like dark red cherries and berries, particularly strawberries and blueberries are also great choices.
If you “eat your colors” in fresh fruits and veggies, you’ll be covered. Here are some recipe ideas for “eating the rainbow”:
Mains: Try going meatless with these satisfying plant-based meals or add a piece of grilled fish or chicken or even an egg to get the protein you need to sustain you through treatment: Swiss Chard Frittata, Spaghetti Squash au Gratin, Spicy Pasta with Kale and Almonds, Quinoa with Roasted Winter Vegetables, Moroccan Vegetable Stew, Eggplant Pita Pizza.
Salads: To get your 5-a-day, salads can be a lot more than just lettuce and cucumber, nice as they are! Try these to get going: Wilted Chard Salad with Walnuts, Southwestern Kale Salad, Poached Pear Salad with White Wine Vinaigrette, Chicken Salad.
Desserts: Simple fruit desserts satisfy your sweet tooth while bringing vitamins and nutrients along, too. Frozen fruits and berries give us great nutrition year-round. If weight loss is a problem, add a little cream or whole milk Greek yogurt for extra calories: Microwave Strawberry Compote, Lemony Berry Parfait, Simple Baked Apples, Poached Pears with Vanilla, Avocado Chocolate Mousse.
Eating enough throughout the day can help reduce the feeling of nausea and allow for you to consume enough calories to maintain your weight during treatment.
Anorexia or weight loss is a common symptom of cancer, as well as a common side effect from treatment. This can be due to loss of appetite, which is sometimes due to constant feelings of nausea.
Rather than restricting your diet to a typical three meals a day, it can be easier to have smaller meals spaced out in the day. In these instances, try for 4 to 6 small meals or plates.
Have easy-to-grab snacks around the house that you can pick on throughout the day. Good options include dried fruit, cheese slices, nuts, applesauce pots, yogurts, or plain crackers. If you are able, adding spreads such as peanut butter, soft cheese, or hummus can be an excellent way of getting more protein in your diet.
Make sure to keep up with regular mouth care, such as mouth rinses, to keep your mouth fresh and ready for eating. If you are suffering from severe anorexia and nausea, it can be helpful to go for small amounts of cold or room temperature foods, which tend to be more gentle on the senses. If you are feeling particularly nauseous or are experiencing taste changes, it may also be a good idea to avoid trying to eat your favorite foods. Trying out new recipes and tastes will give you something to focus on and help with the chemo blahs that can develop.
Here are some more easy recipe ideas for you to try:
Smoothies and Drinks:
Coconut Banana Smoothie and Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie are both high in calories and can be sipped on in small quantities. For nausea try a soothing, cooling Banana Slushie or sipping on some Ginger Tea.
Soups and Small plates:
Arborio Rice and Vegetable Soup is filling and soothing. Chicken With Ginger Broth is easy to digest, high in protein and the little kick from the ginger broth is gentle on chemo palates, too. Rice is another good option — especially white rice, as it is easy to digest.
There are many white rice-based risottos on our site and all can be frozen into small portions. Try starting with this deliciously soupy no-stir Winter Squash Risotto. It’s easy to make, especially with pre-cut squash, and really easy to eat. You can stir in a little extra butter at the end to add more calories.
Hard-Boiled Eggs are a great standby to keep in the fridge for a quick nutritious snack. Hummus and Honeyed Peanut Butter Miso Spread, too — these nutritious high calorie, protein-rich spreads are great for crackers or bread.
Sweet treats like Chocolate Tahini Bars are great to nibble on when having a cup of tea or coffee. Chilled homemade Applesauce or Ginger Poached Pears make great little desserts or for something with a bit more protein, try Vanilla Chia Pudding.
Undergoing cancer treatment is no easy task, but being mindful of one’s nutrition and carefully planning meals can seriously alleviate some of the side effects. Proper nourishment can also help heal the body and ease recovery. It’s important to keep in close contact with your doctor and dietitian to explain any side effects taking place and to develop an appropriate nutrition plan for during treatment and beyond. If you plan to make any significant dietary changes, speak to your medical team first.