Proper nutrition through a balanced diet is very important during cancer treatment to help in healing, recovery and to maintain strength before and after surgery, during chemotherapy or radiation.
Each day your diet should include 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables, protein at every meal, plenty of whole grains and 2 to 3 servings of dairy products. Eating this way will ensure that your body is getting the protein, energy, vitamins and minerals to rebuild tissue and prevent infection.
Foods high in protein include meats, fish and seafood, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, soy milk, nuts, beans, lentils and some grains. These foods are especially important for healing, repair of tissues and immune function.
Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients that also aid in healing, fight infection and help to reduce the risk for cancer recurrence.
Sometimes, if appetite decreases, it is necessary to eat food with a high calorie density such as ice cream, buttery sauces, whole milk and gravies. These are foods that we may choose to avoid when following a cancer prevention diet, however, it may be necessary to include these items during the treatment phase if weight and food intake start to dwindle.
Some other foods that are high in protein and calories include cheese, peanut butter, cashews, whole milk, almonds, lean meats and poultry, eggs and seafood.
Coping with appetite loss
Appetite loss can be one of the most distressing side effects from cancer treatment. Eating an adequate amount of calories can be quite challenging with a decrease in appetite. This can lead to fatigue, weakness and loss of ability to do your usual activities.
Often times a small amount of food can result in a feeling of fullness which limits the ability to eat full meals. During these times it is important to make every mouthful count. Foods that have a high calorie density can help to increase calorie intake without increasing the volume of food.
Eat Foods with High Calorie Density
Some foods that are high in calorie density include: cheese, nuts, snack foods, ice cream, gravies, salad dressing, chocolate candy, milkshakes, most desserts, whole milk, fried foods and creamy soups and creamy casseroles.
Salty Or Sweet?
It may also help to identify which types of foods are the most appealing - salty, tart, bitter, sweet. Sometimes it can be difficult to think of food ideas on your own when you have a poor appetite. Ask a friend or family member to help you to brainstorm some foods that fall into the category that appeals to you the most.
Eating small amounts more frequently can also help. Try to keep snack foods visible and within reach. Optimize the use of convenience foods that require very little preparation. It may also help to change your environment. If you are feeling up to it, going out to eat or creating a relaxing environment may help to stimulate appetite.
Eating Well During Radiation To The Mouth, Throat Or Chest
The side effects from radiation typically start to occur about 2 weeks into treatment and can last for a few weeks after treatment has ended. The usual side effects from radiation to the head and neck area can include difficulty chewing or swallowing due to soreness of the mouth and throat, heartburn, and a feeling of fullness or pressure in the area of the esophagus which is just above the stomach.
Another common occurrence during treatment can be dryness of the mouth or very thick saliva which can also make eating a challenge. All of these side effects can contribute to a decrease in overall food and beverage intake resulting in weight loss and sometimes dehydration.
Foods that are moist and easy to chew and swallow are also recommended. For some individuals, it is easier to consume these calories and protein in liquid form like milkshakes or commercial high protein beverages or "health shakes".
Examples Of Soft, High-Calorie & High Protein Foods
Some foods that are high calorie, high protein and easy to chew and swallow include: cheese, eggs, yogurt, puddings, soft meats, tofu, peanut butter (with jelly or something moist like bananas), custard, whole milk, casseroles, pasta with cream sauce, cream soups, etc. It is also extremely important to consume enough fluids. This can be especially challenging but cannot be emphasized enough. Dehydration due to lack of fluid intake is one of the most common reasons for hospitalization during treatment.
Other Nutrition Considerations
If eating and drinking becomes too painful, a feeding tube placed into the stomach is an option which becomes a welcome relief for many patients struggling to maintain their nutrient intake and quality of life during treatment. It is also important to have a dietitian available during therapy who can provide ongoing suggestions and individualize your nutrition care plan based on your unique needs and preferences.
Registered Dietitians are available in the hospital and outpatient clinics to provide information about the best foods to eat for recovery, during and after treatment. They can offer suggestions for coping with side effects of treatment such as appetite loss, weight loss, taste changes, and specialized diets. Our dietitians also provide evidence based guidance regarding foods for cancer risk reduction and answer questions about herbs and dietary supplements.
For more information about nutrition care at Moffitt, please ask your physician to place an order for you to meet with a dietitian.