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, how the body takes in essential nutrients, change of appetite, and weight loss. 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 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 a way which is easy to digest and tolerate, 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. See below for some meal ideas to help with this.
Many patients believe that taking nutritional supplements is the best way to get nutrients when eating is difficult. However at Cook For Your LIFE we believe in the power of natural fruits and vegetables. We are not alone in this. The Dana Farber Cancer Institute recommends focusing on a diet full of vegetables and fruit, grains, healthy fat and lean proteins to stay nourished during treatment and while recovering. Although in less concentrated quantities than supplements, the nutrients and antioxidants in real food are so much more bio-accessible to your body. In any event, do not take any herbal or nutritional supplements without discussion with your medical team. Antioxidant supplements can block the action of chemo, so if you are on chemo, your doctors should be more supportive about you getting your nutrients the natural way, through a colorful varied, veggie rich diet.
Fruits and vegetables are antioxidant powerhouses. Go for green, cruciferous veggies like cabbage, kale, and cauliflower. 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, and white onions and garlic. There are so many antioxidant-rich veggies to choose from! 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 phytochemicals like beta-carotene, so you’ll truly benefit from your food. Adding cheese is another great option, as cheese will add additional protein and minerals to support your body. Colorful antioxidant fruits from the citrus family and summer favorites like dark red cherries, and of course berries, particularly strawberries and blueberries are a great choice. Basically if you “eat your colors” in fresh fruits and veggies you’ll be covered! Here are some of our favorite delivery systems (aka recipes)!
Soups: always the best way to get in your vegetables: 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 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. Try these basics. 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.
In addition to eating the right kinds of food to help alleviate symptoms, eating enough throughout the day is key. Anorexia is a common symptom of cancer, whether early in the diagnosis or for those patients in more advanced stages. Loss of appetite is common, and it can be difficult to feel motivated to eat when feeling that way or even nauseous. Rather than restricting your diet to a typical three meals a day, it’s easier for patients to have smaller meals spaced out in the day. In these instances small meals or plates of nutritious high calorie foods are your best strategy, and even though you may be eating some high fat foods that you normally wouldn’t consider healthy, they help you stay full without resorting to sugary junk food calories.
Some patients find it helpful to aim to have ‘one bite per hour’ or to have a small snack every two hours. If you are feeling this way, it is important to make the most of any eating opportunity. Have easy-to-grab snacks around the house which 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. Other things that can be helpful include adding oils, butters or cream to meals to ‘fortify’ your foods. Try adding cream into your coffee or soups for a special nutritional boost. This may be different to what you would normally do, but cancer patients’ nutritional needs are different to those of the general population, and the emphasis on nutrition in cancer is to eat enough to support the body and minimize losses.
Many patients find that their appetite is better earlier in the day, so this can be a good time to try to eat more. Avoid filling up on liquids too close to meal times, 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 with severe anorexia and nausea, it can 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, it may be a good idea to avoid trying to eat your favorite foods, as this can cause taste aversions to develop. 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 can gently blast away chemo palate too. Use mini pita breads for little pizzas. Get creative with toppings using mild full fat cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta. 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. 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. 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 awful side effects. Proper nourishment can also help heal the body and ease recovery. It’s important to keep in close contact with your doctor 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.
Gia Bersani from the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center also contributed to this article.