Nutritional Considerations for Cancer Patients

cancer nutrition guidelines - cook for your life

Nutrition is an important aspect of everyone’s health, but it becomes even more essential for those in treatment for or recovering from cancer. Cancer patients 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 influence 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 patients.

Regardless of the type of cancer, being aware of nutrient intake is essential for patients during treatment. When chemotherapy is the first line of treatment for cancer patients, 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. Patients 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 patients 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. 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 antioxidant phytochemicals. 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 phytochemicals like beta-carotene. Colorful antioxidant fruits from the citrus family and summer favorites like dark red cherries and berries, particularly strawberries and blueberries are a great choice.

If you “eat your colors” in fresh fruits and veggies you’ll be covered. Here are some recipe ideas for “eating the rainbow”:

Soups:  Try Grandma’s Minestrone Soup,  Lentil Soup With Squash and Fennel, or Pureed Vegetable Soup with Collard Green, or a bowl of Tomato and Sweet Potato Soup for a dose of lycopene.

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 FrittataSpaghetti Squash au GratinSpicy Pasta with Kale and AlmondsQuinoa with Roasted Winter VegetablesMoroccan Vegetable StewEggplant 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 WalnutsSouthwestern Kale SaladPoached Pear Salad with White Wine VinaigretteChicken 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 ParfaitSimple Baked ApplesPoached Pears with VanillaAvocado 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 for patients to have smaller meals spaced out in the day. In these instances, try for 4 to 6 small meals or plates of high calorie and high protein foods.

Have easy-to-grab snacks around the house that you can pick on throughout the day. Good options include dried fruit, cheese slices, nuts, apple sauce 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. Try adding cream into your coffee or soups for a special nutritional boost. This may be different from what you would normally do, but cancer patients’ nutritional needs are different from those of the general population, and the emphasis on nutrition in cancer is to eat enough to support maintaining weight and muscle mass.

Avoid filling up on liquids too close to mealtimes, and 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 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 for chemo palates too. Rice is good too, 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.

Our bite-size Mini Ricotta Pizzas are pleasurable without being daunting, as are Twice Cooked Potatoes made with the smaller Yukon Gold potatoes rather than russets.

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 are nutritious high calorie, protein-rich spreads 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.

Registered Dietitian Approved

There are many misconceptions about nutrition and cancer in widespread media. By using current scientific literature, plus recommendations of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the National Cancer Institute, and the American Cancer Society, our Registered Dietitian, Kate Ueland, MS, RD, and our team of editors work to help our readers discern truth from myth.

The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Always consult your physician or registered dietitian for specific medical advice.


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