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Food for Thought

Good Nutrition Choices During and After Cancer Treatment

by Maria Petzel, RD, CSO, LD, CNSC

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When so many things seem out of control, making good nutrition choices can help you play a more active role in your treatment and recovery. Making the right food choices can help manage symptoms, improve treatment tolerance, and improve quality of life after therapy. A healthy lifestyle may also decrease the chances of recurrence for some cancers.

In general, people undergoing cancer treatment should follow these guidelines:

Eat small, frequent meals (six to eight per day).
Plan meals and snacks for the next day.
Drink plenty of fluids (six to eight cups each day).
Choose nutrient-dense foods.
Eat meals and snacks rich in protein.
Engage in physical activity every day.

Improving Treatment Side Effects
Good nutrition can improve some common side effects of cancer treatment, including taste changes, sore mouth or throat, and poor appetite. Making certain modifications to your diet can also aid with nausea, diarrhea, and constipation, but this often needs to be combined with medical therapy.

When cancer treatment is complete, good nutrition continues to play a role in the prevention of new cancers, heart disease, and other health conditions.

Author of Article photo

Maria Petzel

♦ Taste Changes
Rinse your mouth with a baking soda and water solution, or water with lemon if you don’t have mouth sores. If foods taste metallic, use plastic utensils, and don’t drink directly from metal containers. To enhance dull taste, add tart flavors, such as pickles, lemons, and vinegar. This is a good time to try new foods or foods you previously disliked.

♦ Sore Mouth or Throat
Try soft, moist foods with extra sauce, dressing, or gravy. Avoid alcohol, citrus, caffeine, tomatoes, vinegar, and hot peppers. Try foods at room temperature or chilled.

♦ Nausea or Vomiting
Eat small, frequent meals and snacks at room temperature. Eliminate offending odors in the room where you eat. Drink liquids separate from meals. When your stomach is empty, start by eating dry toast or a few crackers. Avoid sweet, rich, greasy, or spicy foods. Instead, try tart or tangy foods. Drinking ginger tea or ginger ale may help ease nausea.

♦ Poor Appetite or Weight Loss
Schedule your meals and snacks. Eat frequent, nutrient-dense meals and snacks containing protein. Good sources of protein include chicken, turkey, and fish; lean cuts of beef or pork (limited to three times a week), cheese; yogurt (especially Greek); milk; beans, peas, and legumes; eggs; nuts, seeds, and nut butters; soy foods, such as edamame, tofu, and soymilk; and meat alternatives, such as veggie burgers or protein powders. Between meals, drink liquid nutritional supplements or smoothies containing protein. Increase calories by adding granola, dried fruits, avocado, or healthy oils (such as olive or canola) to your food. Try to exercise a few minutes before meals.

♦ Diarrhea
Eat foods high in soluble fiber, such as oats, bananas, apples without the peel, and citrus fruits without much membrane. Eat high-potassium and high-sodium foods, and drink plenty of fluids. Decrease or avoid foods sweetened with sugar alcohol; sugarsweetened beverages; lactose (use lactose-free milk or take lactase pills); and foods high in insoluble fiber, such as raw vegetables, fruits with peels, seeds, and whole grains, such as bran.

♦ Constipation
Increase your fluid intake, and drink warm or hot liquids. Increase fiber-containing foods (as long as fluid intake is adequate), and eat prunes or drink prune juice. When you’re constipated, limit gas-forming foods, carbonated beverages, drinking from straws, and chewing gum. If possible, increase your physical activity.

After Treatment
When cancer treatment is complete (or ongoing but without side effects), good nutrition continues to play a role in the prevention of new cancers, heart disease, and other health conditions. Cancer survivors should strive to eat a plant-based diet that includes two and a half to four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables a day and is high in whole grains. Diets should be limited in red meat, processed meat, and processed foods that have high sugar, high fat, or low fiber. Survivors should also be physically active and achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

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Maria Petzel is a certified specialist in oncology and a senior clinical dietitian at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2012.

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