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Eat Well. Be Well.

Tips for Healthy Eating During and After Cancer Treatment

by Anita Ratterman, RD, CSO, LDN

Wellness image

For a healthy snack, consult your blender.

Eating right is important for feeling healthy and strong. It becomes even more important when being treated for cancer. Cancer itself can affect appetite and the body’s ability to tolerate certain foods. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy can affect your desire to eat and can create side effects that hamper the ability to eat. Management of nutrition-related side effects throughout the course of treatment may help keep you eating well.

Nutrition is an important part of cancer treatment. Eating the right kinds of foods before, during, and after treatment can help you feel better and stay stronger. Well-nourished people tend to tolerate treatment better, have fewer breaks in treatment, and recover faster. A healthy diet can help keep up your strength and energy and maximize your quality of life.

Keeping Up Your Intake
Be sure you are eating enough for each day. Snack throughout the day or eat mini meals instead of three larger meals. Eating a small amount every two hours or so really adds up. It may also help alleviate nausea.

Be sure to include a good protein source each time you eat. Peanut butter on a banana or a whole-wheat bagel, yogurt and fruit, and tuna on an English muffin or whole grain crackers all make great mini meals. Eat your favorite foods any time of day. If breakfast sounds good at dinnertime, have it. Or how about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast?

If nausea is hampering your appetite, be sure to take antinausea medications as prescribed by your doctor. Let your doctor know if the medication isn’t effective. There may be another option.

Managing Taste Changes
Taste changes occur frequently during treatment. Suddenly, your favorite foods don’t taste quite right. The following suggestions may help improve flavor.

Rinse your mouth or brush your teeth before eating. Food tastes better in a clean mouth. Choose foods that appeal to you. Cool or cold foods often taste better than hot foods. Keep chilled or frozen fruits, such as grapes, melon, and sliced oranges, on hand for a sweet treat.

If red meat doesn’t taste good, replace it with fish, chicken, eggs, cheese, beans, or dairy products to get your protein. Sometimes, if nothing tastes good, we need to remind ourselves that eating is an important part of treatment, and we just have to do it.

Mouth Soreness
This can make eating very difficult. To keep from aggravating mouth sores, avoid temperature extremes. Cool to lukewarm temperatures work best. Focus on smooth, mild foods like yogurt, smoothies, mashed potatoes, and soups like split pea or cream soups. This is a good time to put your blender to use. Eating may be easier if you don’t need to chew.

Talk to your doctor about ways to relieve mouth pain. There are topical medications that can be applied in the mouth before eating.

Fighting Fatigue
There may be times when you don’t have the energy to prepare and eat a meal. Keep your kitchen stocked with your favorite foods and foods you know you can eat when you don’t feel well. Cook in advance and freeze meal-sized portions. Talk to family and friends about helping with shopping and cooking. Ask them to prepare a favorite dish or pot of soup.

Eating Well
Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods that pack a powerful cancer-fighting punch, working toward a plant-based diet. Begin adding fruits and vegetables that you can tolerate. Aim for several servings and at least three different colors of fruits and vegetables each day. Pick a few meals each week to be meatless or animal free.

Soups are a great place to sneak in a few servings. Add chopped vegetables to casseroles, sauces, and egg dishes.

Add blueberries to oatmeal or dry cereals. Snack on dried fruits and nuts. Make a smoothie with several different fruits, even a vegetable or two. Try one with a frozen banana, mixed berries, or mango for a refreshing, antioxidant-rich drink. With a powerful blender, you could add a fresh carrot without altering the flavor of the smoothie. If desired, protein powder could also be added.

Whole grains
Try to include at least three servings each day. Use whole grain cereals, breads, pastas, and crackers to replace processed grains.

If you are having difficulty eating a healthy diet, ask if your cancer center has a registered dietitian available to help you with your nutritional concerns. She or he may be able to help you plan meals while managing nutrition-related side effects of your treatment.

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Anita Ratterman is a registered dietitian. She is board certified in oncology nutrition at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, IL.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2011.