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A Recipe for Preventing Weight Loss during Treatment


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The foods you eat when you are sick are often the best tolerated when you’re going through cancer treatment.

Many people with cancer experi­ence a loss of appetite and a decrease in food intake, which can result in significant weight loss. Pre­venting weight loss is important to help your body heal and recover from the side effects of cancer therapy.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are used to destroy cancer cells, but they may also damage normal cells in the process. Rebuilding these normal cells requires increasing your caloric intake and building up stores of good protein.

Preventing weight loss can also help to combat muscle-wasting, weakness, and fatigue and improve immune func­tion. Maintaining (or, if necessary, gaining) weight during treatment gives your body energy.

Being knowledgeable about how your cancer and treatment affects your body will help you maintain your weight and keep up your energy while undergoing treatment.

Serving Up Weight-Loss Prevention Strategies

Keep a list of what foods have an altered taste, and avoid those foods while on treatment.
Try foods that you never cared for in the past; these could become your new favorites.
Avoid warm meats, like steak; instead try cold meat, like roast beef.
Avoid the smells of cooking, if possible.
Try new or different foods, like smoked meat or fish, pickled eggs, or different ethnic cuisines.
If food tastes overly sweet, try adding acidic ingredients such as ketchup, hot sauce, relish, or a squeeze of lemon or lime.
If food tastes metallic, try eating with a plastic fork or spoon.
If food has no taste, try adding sauces, condiments, or spices.
Eat small portions, more frequently. Graze throughout the day instead of eating three large meals.
Stock up on “lunchbox” foods, such as fruit cups, yogurt or pudding cups, peanut butter crackers, dried fruits, and chips. These small self-contained portions are a convenient way to add in needed calories.
Keep small servings of ice cream, frozen yogurt, and bonbons in the freezer.
Serve a small portion on a large plate; it looks more appetizing than a large portion and may seem less challenging to finish.
Avocados, potatoes, pasta, and breads provide much-needed fat and calories.
Comfort foods are the best. The foods you eat when you are sick are often the best tolerated. For example, soups, toast, and sandwiches.

Successful weight-loss prevention requires that you eat foods that are high in protein and fat. High-protein foods include eggs, cheese, whole milk, fish, meat, poultry, and beans. Adding nonfat dry milk to soups and sauces is a great way to add protein without adding volume and making you feel full. High-protein, high-calorie snacks, like pudding, milk­shakes, and fruit smoothies, and meal replacement drinks or bars are great for helping prevent weight loss.

Adding fat to your diet can be as simple as adding butter or oil to your food; each tablespoon is approximately 100 calories. Peanut butter and mayon­naise are also high in fat and should be used freely. Remember, the time to go on a diet is not while undergoing can­cer treatment.

In addition to loss of appetite, taste alteration is one of the most common and vexing problems that people with cancer experience. In some cases, it can lead to significant weight loss.

Taste changes are unique to the indi­vidual experiencing them. Some people may taste food as overly sweet, metal­lic, or bland. The smell of certain foods may cause nausea or diminish your ap­petite. Identifying which foods or odors cause you the most trouble is a good first step in managing this symptom. Being flexible and willing to try different foods during this period of altered taste sensations will also help you to maintain your weight.

Many people with taste alteration and loss of appetite find that their ap­petites are best in the morning and worst between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Plan your meals accordingly. Breakfast may be the best time to eat meat and other high-protein food; dinner may not be. But you may be able to add a light snack late in the evening.

Remember, weight loss, taste altera­tions, and loss of appetite are biological phenomena linked to cancer and its treatment. They are not indicators of willpower and the will to live. Being knowledgeable about how your cancer and treatment affects your body will help you maintain your weight and keep up your energy while undergoing treatment.

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Excerpted with permission from The Lahey Clinic Guide to Cooking Through Cancer: 100+ Recipes for Treatment and Recovery, copyright © 2012 by The Lahey Clinic Sophia Gordon Cancer Center.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2014.