Nutrition

Nutrition is an important part of cancer prevention, treatment, and recovery. 

Cancer symptoms and treatment side effects may cause changes to appetite, digestion, and weight.

Eating healthy foods before, during, and after treatment can help you feel better and stay stronger. 

Nutrition Before Treatment  Nutrition During Treatment Nutrition After Treatment

Nutrition Before Treatment:

Preparing for treatment can get stressful.
Here are some tips to help you get ready so that you feel more in control:

  • Educate yourself about your diagnosis, treatment, and side effects.  You may feel less anxious by preparing yourself. Not all patients experience the same side effects – including frequency, duration, and intensity.  Many side effects can be controlled, and many symptoms go away once treatment ends.  
  • Eat a healthy diet and maintain your weight before treatment starts. Eating a healthy diet and maintaining weight before treatment helps you stay strong, lower your risk for infection, cope with side effects, and complete treatment as scheduled without breaks.
  • Stock your freezer and your pantry and freezer ready-made, pre-portioned meals so you will not need to shop or cook as often. Include easy-to-eat foods that you can process even when mood and appetite are low, or foods you can eat even when you are feeling nauseous or sick.
  • Organize (or delegate a loved one to organize) your friends or family members to help with shopping and cooking. 
  • Create a standard grocery list of items you typically buy so that it is easy for friends and family to shop for you.
  • Talk to your provider or care team members about any concerns you have about eating and managing side effects like constipation, weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration, nausea or vomiting.

If your treatment includes radiation to the head or neck, you may be advised to have a feeding tube placed in your stomach before starting treatment to allow feeding if/when it gets hard to swallow.

Nutrition During Treatment:

Eat foods that are high in protein and calories to keep your strength, rebuild tissues impacted by cancer treatments, and combat fatigue.

Fun Fact: Did you know cancer increases protein needs by 25-50%?

Eat when you have the biggest appetite.  For some people, they notice eating before treatment is better while others notice after-treatment they can eat more. It can help to continue to attempt to eat small snacks as this sometimes turns into being able to eat a whole meal. Being physically active can help improve your appetite.   Tell your doctor if you cannot eat for an entire day.

Have calm and pleasant meals. Eat with people whose company you enjoy, give yourself plenty of time to eat unrushed, and eat foods that look appealing.

Aim to diversify.  By eating a variety of foods, you can get the nutrients your body needs to fight cancer including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.  

  • Proteins: People often need more protein than usual when they have a cancer diagnosis. After surgery or treatments, extra protein is needed to heal tissues and help fight infection.  When your body doesn’t get enough protein, it can break down muscle for energy which makes it take longer to recover from illness and can lower resistance to infection.  Healthy protein sources for patients with cancer include fish, poultry or white meat, eggs, dairy products, nuts or nut butters, beans, legumes (peas and lentils), and soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh).
  • Fats: Dietary fats are not “bad” – in fact, fats play an important role in nutrition. The body breaks down fats and uses them to store energy, insulate body tissues, and transport some types of vitamins through the blood.  When considering the effects of fats on your heart and cholesterol level, choose unsaturated fats including seafood and oils (olive, peanut, safflower, sunflower, corn, and flaxseed) more often than saturated fats or trans fats (found in milk, cheese, butter, and other vegetable oils like palm kernel, and palm). Saturated fats can raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol, and increase your risk for heart disease. 
  • Carbohydrates: *Carbs aren’t bad!* Carbohydrates are the body’s major source of energy. Carbohydrates give the body the energy it needs for physical activity and organ function. The best sources of carbohydrates are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains like oats and brown rice.  These foods also supply the body with needed vitamins and minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients.  Avoid “simple” or processed carbohydrates that have less or no nutritional value including bread, potatoes, rice, spaghetti, pasta, cereals, corn, desserts, candy, and drinks with sugar. 
  • Vitamins & Minerals: Your body needs vitamins and minerals to function properly. Most are found naturally in foods, but they are also sold as pill and liquid supplements.  If you are already eating a balanced diet with enough calories and protein, your body will likely be getting sufficient vitamins and minerals. But it can be hard to eat a balanced diet while undergoing cancer treatments, especially if you are experiencing treatment side effects. If you do have side effects, your provider may suggest a daily multivitamin and/or mineral supplement.  If you are thinking of taking a vitamin or supplement, be sure to discuss this with your provider first. Some people with cancer take large amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other dietary supplements to try to boost their immune system or even destroy cancer cells, but some of these substances can be harmful, especially when taken in large doses - large doses may make chemotherapy and radiation therapy less effective.
  • Herbs:  Many herb products are harmless and safe to use or ingest, but others can cause harmful side effects.  Some may even interfere with surgery or treatment recovery.  Talk to your provider if you are considering using products containing herbs (including pills, liquid extracts, teas, and ointments). 

Note that it is okay if you cannot eat a lot of different foods; eat the foods that feel good for you until you are able to eat more types. 

Drink a lot of liquids. Fluids are essential - if you don’t drink enough fluids or if you lose fluids through vomiting or diarrhea, you can become dehydrated – meaning that your body doesn’t have as much fluid as it needs to function properly.  Drinking liquids is even more important on days when your appetite is low, or you physically cannot eat.  You may find this easier to do if you keep a water bottle nearby.  If you have trouble remembering to drink, set a timer to remind you to take frequent sips. During meals, try to sip small amounts of liquids. You may feel too full if you eat and drink at the same time. If you want more than just small sips, have a larger drink at least 30 minutes before or after meals.  

If you are looking to increase calories, you can choose liquids that add calories and other nutrients. Examples include juice, soup, milk, and soy-based drinks with protein. You may notice that by changing the form of a food, it may be easier to ingest nutrients. For instance, you might make a fruit milkshake instead of eating a piece of fruit, or you can eat softer or frozen foods such as yogurt, milkshakes, popsicles, protein shakes, or smoothies when it is more difficult to eat or digest.  

Eat smaller meals.  Many people find it is easier to eat smaller amounts more often – such as 5 or 6 smaller meals each day instead of 3 large meals.

Keep snacks nearby. Take easy-to-carry snacks such as peanut butter crackers, nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit when you go out or when you do not feel like eating larger meals. 

Nutrition After Treatment:

Many eating problems should improve once you finish treatment, such as decreased appetite or mouth sores.  Some issues, such as changes in taste or weight loss, extend beyond the duration of treatment but reconcile over time.  If you have experienced surgeries that impact digestion processes, such as removing organs, you may experience life-long changes to appetite, weight, or ingestion/digestion.  Eating healthy post-treatment can help with regaining strength, rebuilding tissue, and increasing energy.  

Develop a post-treatment meal plan that is right for you.  Here are some tips to consider:

  • Eat a variety of foods – reminder: no single food has all the vitamins and nutrients you need. 
  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, including both raw and cooked vegetables, fruits, and fruit juices. 
  • Eat whole wheat, high fiber, or whole grain carbohydrate products such as whole wheat bread, oats, brown rice, and grain cereals. 
  • Limit foods and drinks high in fat, salt, and sugar.
  • Eliminate or significantly limit alcohol, smoked foods, and processed meats. 
  • Limit red meat to 2 servings or less per week. 
  • Use low-fat cooking methods, such as broiling, steaming, grilling, and roasting. 

Remember to prepare simple meals that you like and are easy to make.  You can cook 2 or 3 meals at a time and freeze the extras to eat later – by stocking up on healthy frozen dinners and buying or preparing pre-cut vegetables and fruit, you reduce the likelihood of skipping meals or overeating less healthy food options.  Meal preparation is key to success!

DIET PLANS

Some providers recommend a special diet for patients diagnosed with cancer.  Here are some commonly recommended diet plans – they include an overview, easy-to-follow recipes, and helpful tips.  It is important that you adhere to these recommended diet plans ONLY when prescribed by your provider; if you are unsure, you should consult with your provider.

BRAT

DASH

LOW CALORIE

LOW FIBER

NEUTROPENIC

SOFT FOODS