In health and in sickness, eating well is essential for maintaining proper nutrition. Research has shown a direct correlation between what we eat and how we function. This is especially true for those diagnosed with cancer. In fact, everything we eat and drink has a profound effect on our bodies, influencing our energy level, our mood, our ability to focus, our ability to heal, and much more. Food is the fuel that powers our complex human bodies. Proper nutrition is a key component to well-being.
As with any disease or illness, maintaining proper nutrition during cancer treatment is vitally important. According to Registered Dietitian Rosalind Elemy, MA, RDN, CSO, there is not just one special diet for cancer patients . “Everyone is unique,” says Elemy. “A pre-existing disease may impact someone’s diet. Other considerations include age, gender and activity level. Everyone has different needs.”
During cancer treatment, one of the focuses for patients is maintaining good nutritional status to better withstand the rigors of treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.
Part of comprehensive cancer care is ensuring that cancer patients know what comprises a healthy diet. Diets are also designed to address individual concerns during treatment. Some patients want, or need, to lose weight. Some need to gain weight. Fatigue is another factor in determining one’s diet, compounded by the fact that patients may simply not have the energy to prepare meals or to eat what they’ve prepared.
“We look for strategies that meet our patients’ needs,” explains Elemy. “For example, on days when a patient has more energy, we encourage them to prepare extra meals to store in the freezer. We also give them information about easy-to-prepare meals that are a good source of nutrition.
“Another strategy for battling fatigue, particularly when someone has a lack of appetite, is to eat smaller, more frequent meals. And meals don’t have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as making a sandwich and having it with soup or fresh fruit. It’s just important to get enough calories and good nutrition during treatment.”
Basic nutrition guidelines
Maintaining a healthy diet is key for maintaining a good weight status. There is evidence that increased weight can be a risk factor for some cancers, particularly breast cancer in post-menopausal women. Colon, rectal, esophageal, prostate and kidney cancers can all be associated with increased body weight. According to the World Health Organization, at least one third of all cancer deaths are estimated to be related to lifestyle choices. Poor diets and a sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk for cancer.
What to eat
According to Elemy, a general guideline for good nutrition includes:
• Two and a half cups of fresh fruits and vegetables each day
• Lean sources of protein, especially fish like wild salmon; avoid red meats, processed meats (nitrates may be a risk for gastric cancer)
• Lean sources of dairy: skim milk; non-fat, plain Greek yogurt
• Whole grains
• Nuts like almonds or walnuts, a handful as a serving size
• Oils such as olive oil; avocados are a great source of healthy fat
For those with a sweet tooth, the recommendation is fresh fruit or dried fruit, such as figs or dates (two to four dried figs or dates per day).
“If someone is craving sweet things during their treatment, I try to think of alternatives that are going to be healthier to provide some balance to their diet,” says Elemy. “I might recommend smoothies which may have a sweet taste, and maybe adding protein powder for increased protein content.”
“We don’t usually suggest that someone must eliminate specific foods completely from their diet. But the problem with sweets is that they provide empty calories and we want to make sure that the patient’s diet provides healthy nutrients and doesn’t contribute to unnecessary weight gain.”
Write out a weekly menu
Another strategy for maintaining good nutrition is to plan weekly menus. Keeping a well-stocked pantry and freezer also helps with quick meal preparation.
Stay as active as your body allows
One of the newer recommendations for cancer patients during treatment is to stay as active as the body allows. Stretching and strengthening exercises, and modified cardiovascular activities like walking or biking, may help increase a patient’s appetite, in addition to maintaining strength and circulation.
A change in taste
Some patients may experience the loss of their sense of taste or notice that everything tastes metallic. “Using plastic utensils and trying different seasonings and herbs may help someone who experiences a metallic taste,” says Elemy. “A touch of lemon can also alter or omit a metallic taste. Some meats, particularly red meat, can taste metallic, so switching to fish or poultry may lessen the metallic taste.”
This quick and easy plant-based entrée boosts plant food intake and it is an excellent source of antioxidants and vitamins that may help fight cancer, including beta-caroene, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, folate and fiber.
Sweet Potato Curry
2 medium cooked sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 small onion, diced
3 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
½ jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon olive oil
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely minced
2 tablespoons curry powder
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 15 ounce can low sodium garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 bunch fresh spinach or Swiss chard, washed, stemmed and chopped
1 cup low sodium vegetable broth or water
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté diced onion in oil for two to three minutes, add garlic cloves and jalapeno, and sauté for two minutes. Add spices and minced ginger, allowing it to coat vegetables.
Add garbanzo beans and broth and simmer for two minutes. Add spinach or Swiss chard and simmer until the greens are just wilted. Add cooked sweet potatoes and stir to combine.
Serve with cooked rice or whole grain naan.