Good nutrition is vitally important as part of any cancer treatment plan. Individuals with cancer have higher nutritional needs for calories and protein than the general population to maintain strength and muscle mass. These increased needs come at a time when many patients will struggle with food intake. It can be hard to eat right during cancer treatment. Many people find that their appetite is reduced due to stress and worry about their diagnosis. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy often bring side effects which impact on food intake, such as nausea, taste changes or sensitivity to smells. The location of the cancer is also important, as a large tumor may reduce the amount a patient can eat. For these reasons, many patients may find that having small meals will help them to eat more than their traditional eating pattern.
Try these simple strategies to help you achieve optimum nutrition in smaller volumes:
Eat little & often – When someone is feeling unwell, the sight of a big meal can kill any appetite. Instead of focusing on eating three meals per day, aim to have six small meals, spaced out throughout the day. Serving meals on side plates instead of normal dinner plates can also make the meal more appealing.
Eat to schedule- If you find that you have no appetite at all, it can be easier to eat by the clock, and aim to have something at designated time points throughout the day. Alternatively, you may find it more helpful to ‘graze’ on high calorie snacks such as nuts, crackers, cheese or dried fruit throughout the day.
Be mindful of fluids- It is important to maintain hydration levels to feel you best during cancer treatment, particularly if you are having side effects such as vomiting and diarrhea. Avoid drinking liquid at mealtimes, which may fill you up. Try to choose nourishing drinks such as milk, or milkshakes between meals, which will provide extra calories and nutrition.
Eat when able- Try to have your largest meal at the time when you appetite is at its peak, such as in the morning, and having small meals thereafter.
Fortify your foods- When eating small amounts of food, it is important to try to maximize the amount of nutrition you are having in each mini-meal. If you are struggling to maintain your weight, switching to full-fat products can be helpful to gain extra calories. Other strategies including adding extra butter, cream, oils and sugars to foods. This may go against to what we know as a ‘healthy’ diet, however the aim during cancer treatment is always to maintain weight, as this is associated with better outcomes. Do not do this step if you are maintaining your normal weight, as weight gain during treatment should also be avoided unless advised to do so by your doctor or dietitian.
Use time wisely- When feeling fatigued from cancer treatment, the act of cooking can be so tiring that it can be difficult to eat when the meal is ready. Try cooking larger meals when feeling better, which can be frozen for use on days where you are feeling more tired.
Speak to your medical team – Your medical team should be made aware of any problems you are having with food intake or weight. There are medications which can help if needed to stimulate appetite. Your dietitian will also be able to give you recommendations on foods or recipes which will give you plenty of nutrition in smaller volumes.
These tips apply for anyone who is struggling to consume enough food. If you have issues with food volumes due to surgical intervention (e.g. gastric cancer removal) you will require more specialist advice from your doctor or dietitian.