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nutrition For cancer patients, eating the right types and amounts of foods is critical for restoring some of the vitality the disease has taken away. Cancer and cancer treatments, however, can change the way the body processes nutrients, affect a patient’s appetite, and cause other side effects that lead to eating problems. Even though nutrition takes on heightened importance for cancer patients, they often face dietary challenges that can diminish treatment outcomes. On a more positive note, evidence is mounting that diet can prevent cancer and the recurrence of cancer. A plant-based diet high in fruits and vegetables, for example, was found by the Women’s Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) study to reduce cancer recurrence when combined with moderate, regular exercise. The nutritional advice provided herein is intended for the typical cancer patient with a normal range of treatment side effects. You may not have these eating problems—or any at all. It may also behoove you to develop an individualized nutrition plan with help from a registered dietician. Studies have demonstrated the benefit of dietary counseling for reducing treatment-related symptoms and improving quality of life.

Cancer Nutrition Tips for Eating Right During Treatment

According to a group of experts convened on behalf of the American Cancer Society (ACS), the goals of nutritional care during cancer treatment should be to:

  • Prevent or resolve nutritional deficiencies
  • Achieve or maintain a healthy weight
  • Preserve lean body mass
  • Minimize nutrition-related side effects
  • Maximize quality of life

These guidelines are not altogether different from those recommended for non-cancer patients. But the food intake needed to meet them is often quite different for a cancer patient. For example, while most people are told to limit foods like milk, cheese, and eggs, cancer patients, because they often require extra protein and calories, may need to eat more of these foods. Most of us are also told to limit sauces and gravies, but these might help cancer patients who have trouble chewing and swallowing. Conversely, eating high-fiber foods—a habit advised for the population at-large—is not advised for certain cancer patients, including those with diarrhea, cramping, and digestion problems. Cancer patients, who are more vulnerable to foodborne infections, should also take special precautions in the kitchen. Scrub raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them, cook meat and eggs thoroughly, and avoid unpasteurized foods.

Mesothelioma Guidelines

One-third of all cancer deaths in the U.S. are associated with diet and exercise patterns, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). In response, the ACS has set specific nutrition guidelines for cancer survivors. While these guidelines are the same as those recommended for cancer prevention in the general population, as the ACS notes, the risk of cancer recurrence and chronic diseases among survivors means that, “the guidelines established to prevent those diseases are especially important for cancer survivors.” The ACS guidelines are:

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Engage in regular physical activity.
  • Achieve a dietary pattern that is high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Which Foods to Eat (and Which to Limit)

The ACS defines a healthy diet as one rich in plant foods and low in processed foods and red meats. Specific guidelines include the following:

  • Eat at least 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day. These foods should be included with every meal and also eaten for snacks. Consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and avoid fruit juices that aren’t 100 percent juice.
  • Choose whole grains over refined grains. Whole grain foods are those made from the entire grain seed. Compared to refined grains, whole grains are lower in calorie density and higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Limit processed meat and red meat consumption. Processed meats include products like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs, while beef, pork, and lamb are considered red meats. Substitute processed and red meats with fish, poultry, and high-protein non-meats such as beans.
  • Limit alcohol consumption to 2 drinks per day (men) and 1 drink per day (women). One standard drink is the equivalent of 12 fluid ounce of beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof spirits.

In addition to these specific guidelines, the ACS advises more generally recommends choosing foods that help you maintain a healthy weight. This requires familiarizing yourself with food labels and portion sizes. For example, a “low fat” food isn’t necessarily a “low calorie” food. High-calorie foods can cause overweight and obesity, conditions that contribute to up to 1/5 of all cancer-related mortality. You can read all of the ACS guidelines for nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention, including research on how diet and exercise affect risks for specific types of cancer, here.

Common Cancer Eating Problems and How to Deal With Them

You may experience these and other eating problems caused by your cancer treatment. Speak with a healthcare professional about any problems that affect you.

  1. The problem: Loss of appetite. The solutions: The timing and duration of your appetite loss should decide how you manage it. Possible solutions include eating a large meal when you feel up to it (no matter the time), eating liquid meal replacements, and eating several, small meals rather than fewer, large ones. Exercise can also stimulate appetite.
  2. The problem: Nausea. The solutions: Even if you feel nauseous, it’s a good idea to eat something, as an empty stomach can make nausea worse. Try foods like white toast and plain yogurt that are easy on your stomach. Minimize liquids during mealtime to keep from feeling bloated.
  3. The problem: Diarrhea. The solutions: Drink lots of fluids to replace those lost from diarrhea. Replace sodium and potassium with foods and drinks high in these minerals. Avoid high-fiber foods, greasy foods,milk products, and alcohol.
  4. The problem: Dry mouth The solutions: Always keep a water bottle by your side to sip throughout the day. Sweet or tart foods and drinks, which stimulate saliva production, can also help. Chew gum or popsicles and avoid alcohol.
  5. The problem: Weight loss The solutions: Eat at mealtimes even if you don’t feel hungry. Eat foods like peanut butter that are high in calories. Milkshakes and smoothies can be easier to get down if you don’t feel hungry.

To see recipes and learn more, check out the free book from the National Cancer Institute, “Eating Hints: Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment.

Helpful books:

The Cancer Survival Cookbook

Cancer Survival Cookbook

The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It

The Forever Fix

Betty Crocker's Living with Cancer Cookbook

Living w/ Cancer Cookbook

  1. http://www.cancer.gov/cancerinfo/pdq/supportivecare/nutrition
  2. Paglia, Donna. Vegetarian Diets During Cancer Treatment. Vegetarian Journal. 1996. Vol. 15 (4)

About the Author - 

Nancy is a blog and content writer with more than 20 years of professional experience. Nancy has been writing about mesothelioma and cancer for close to five years.

Published: May 5, 2013 - Updated: Feb 9, 2016
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