Oncology Nutrition: Eating Well During Cancer Treatment

By Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE July 24, 2019Pearls of Wisdom Blog

After a cancer diagnosis, many people feel like they have very little control in their life, but one area where they can gain back some control is with their food choices. Good nutrition can help you feel better and stay stronger during and after cancer treatment and can help you tolerate treatment side effects better. To achieve good nutrition, many people wonder what foods they should eat or avoid or if they need to start a special diet after a cancer diagnosis.

For answers to these concerns, you may search the internet for information about nutrition. Well-meaning friends may offer you advice to try a trendy diet or herbal product. Before you make any changes to what and how you eat, it’s important to talk to your healthcare team. You may not need to change the way you eat entirely. Certain foods or supplements may interact with your treatments, and cancer treatment may not be the right time to try a popular diet or restrict food choices.

Here are some answers to commonly asked questions:

What type of diet is recommended after a cancer diagnosis?

Oncology nutrition experts suggest that cancer patients follow a plant-based or a heart healthy menu. Plant-based or heart healthy menus focus on including a variety of

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Beans
  • Whole grains
  • Healthy vegetable fats
  • Lean proteins
  • Low-fat dairy.

These foods are full of the nutrients that help you recover from treatment and stay well-nourished.

Do you feel like you’ve heard this advice before? Even for people without a cancer diagnosis, nutrition experts often recommend plant-based or heart healthy menus. If you followed a healthy menu before your cancer diagnosis, then this may be very similar to what you are already eating.

Due to side effects of cancer or cancer treatment, some foods you’ve eaten regularly in the past may not agree with you during treatment. You may need to tweak your food choices to eat foods that you can better tolerate. For example, if you have trouble chewing or swallowing, stick to soft foods. If you feel full quickly or experience gas or digestive issues, you may need to avoid high-fiber or spicy foods. Learn more about managing side effects here.

I just read about a new diet. Can I follow it during cancer treatment?

The quick answer is that it depends on which diet you are considering. As a general rule, changing your diet drastically during cancer treatment is usually not recommended.

After a cancer diagnosis, some people attempt to follow trendy diets or food plans from magazines or the internet. These fad diets often tout wellness, quick results or energy boosts. Although these diets may have some healthy aspects, they may not be appropriate for someone in cancer treatment.

Here are a few examples of the risks some diets pose for cancer patients:

  • High-protein or high-fiber diets. Some fad diets may be high in protein or fiber. While fiber and protein do have known nutritional benefits, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. For example if cancer or treatment affects your kidneys, your body may not be able to process large amounts of protein. For most people, balancing protein intake with carbohydrates and healthy fats works best. If cancer or treatment affects your digestive track, your body may not be able to process gas-producing foods or dietary fiber well. You may need to eat certain nutrients only in moderation during treatment to meet your individual needs and manage side effects.
  • Raw diets. Some fad diets emphasize eating fresh and uncooked foods, unroasted nuts and raw dairy. Cancer treatment can weaken the immune system. Eating raw foods can expose you to bacteria that can cause foodborne illness if you have a weakened immune system. In addition to decreasing the risk of foodborne illness, cooked foods are easier to chew, swallow and digest. Your digestive system may not be in top form during cancer treatment so cooking foods first can help manage side effects such as difficulty swallowing, gas or discomfort.
  • Low-calorie diets. During treatment, your body may require 25% or more extra calories to help repair and rebuild healthy cells. Low-calorie diets or diets that exclude entire food groups, such as healthy fats or carbs, can cause weight loss during treatment which may put you at an increased risk for malnutrition. For the same reasons, switching to a vegetarian diet during cancer treatment if you were not vegetarian before your diagnosis may also make it difficult for you to eat enough calories to keep up with your body’s changing needs.

How else can I eat well during cancer treatment?

Start by consulting with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who has experience in oncology care. An RDN can help you sort through all the confusing nutrition information you may have encountered so you can separate fact from fiction. An RDN can teach you how to modify your meal plans for better nutrient absorption and digestion based on your specific needs.

It is estimated that fifty percent of patients are at nutrition risk at the time of diagnosis. Prior to diagnosis and treatment, many patients have already experienced unhealthy weight loss and/or an inability to eat well. Poor nutritional status and weight loss can cause a delay in the treatment plan. Good nutrition during cancer treatment can help you feel better, maintain strength and speed recovery.

The Bottom Line: Plan to include balanced amounts of foods from all the food groups in your menus.

Oncology Nutrition Resources

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS): Food and Nutrition Facts

National Cancer Institute: Eating Hints: Before, during and after Cancer Treatment

Cancer Dietitian: 5 Things to Know About Nutrition and Cancer

Cancer Nutrition Consortium: After a Cancer Diagnosis- What Should I Be Eating?

Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE

Author Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE

Nutrition Educator Margaret Martin is a Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist in the State of Tennessee as well as a Certified Diabetes Educator. Margaret graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science & Public Health from the University of Tennessee. With more than 10 years of experience in Clinical Nutrition, Margaret has also worked in the insurance industry with WellPoint Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield providing telephonic nutrition consultations, service assistance, and web-based nutrition education. In her free time Margaret volunteers with the American Lung Association’s annual “Lung Force Walk" in Middle Tennessee. She belongs to the Oncology Nutrition & Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More posts by Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE

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