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Eat Well. Be Well.

Choosing Healthy Eating during Cancer Treatment
and Beyond

by Julie Lanford, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN

Wellness image

Having cancer can change how you see the world. You want to make the most of each day, you are more grateful for family and friends, and you ask yourself, “What can I do to be healthy during and after treatment?”

A healthy lifestyle can improve your quality of life and optimize survivor­ship. The foods you choose to eat, or are able to eat, are key parts of your life­style. Healthy nutrition choices can help keep you strong during treatment, reduce the risk of your cancer coming back, and lower your risk of other diseases.

The Relationship between Cancer & Nutrition
There are no guarantees when it comes to nutrition and cancer, but research shows that choosing healthy foods and being active can put the odds in our favor. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts means that you are getting anti­oxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (plant nutrients) that your body needs each day.

The nutrients you get from food can help ease cancer-related side effects, reduce cell damage, boost your immune system, and generally keep your body healthy. As much as possible, you should get your nutrients from food, not from pills. That’s how our bodies prefer it.

Author of Article photo

Julie Lanford

Nutrition Challenges during Treatment
Many people experience eating challenges at some point during treatment. However, it’s important to get adequate nutrition, even when fac­ing these types of challenges. Good nutrition during treatment can help
regulate your weight and preserve your energy
protect your nutrient levels
lessen cancer-related side effects
improve your quality of life
support your immune system

Most important is to make sure you get enough calories and protein to sup­port your body’s needs. Weight loss and muscle loss are often the first signs of not eating enough. This will often re­sult in feelings of weakness and fatigue.

If weight loss or poor appetite is a concern, focus on eating small high-calorie, high-protein foods every two to three hours. Foods like peanut butter, nuts or seeds, beans, smoothies, cheese, yogurt, and whole grains can give you calo­ries and protein, in addition to other nutrients.

A Healthy Diet
If you are not hav­ing difficulty with weight loss or poor appetite, this is the perfect time to make nutritious changes to your diet. Across the board, a plant-based diet is the clear recommendation for cancer survivors. However, many people aren’t sure what plant-based eating really means.

Plant-based eating simply means that at least two-thirds of your plate is cov­ered with plant foods. Yes, you can still eat meat if you want! But even if you choose to include meat in your diet, you will still want to eat plant proteins each day. (See sidebar for tips on incor­porating plant proteins into your diet.)

If you use the USDA My Plate, the AICR New American Plate, or the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate (all avail­able online) as a guide, you will notice they all have a focus on fruits, veg­etables, whole grains, beans, and nuts. While you don’t have to become veg­etarian to improve your diet, eating plenty of plant foods and only a small amount of animal foods is a healthy pattern that that will help give your body energy and protect against disease.

Your Take-Home Message
Some­times all the nutrition advice being passed around can seem overwhelming. Try to focus on the things we know for sure will help you stay strong during cancer treatment and heal quickly after­wards. Each day, choose
4-5 cups of fruits and vegetables
100% whole grains
30-45 grams of fiber
1 or more servings of plant protein (such as beans, nuts, and seeds)
Spices and herbs, instead of salt and sugar, to flavor food
Water, unsweetened tea, and coffee to stay hydrated

And remember what mom always said: Eat your vegetables!

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Julie Lanford is a registered dietitian and the wellness director for Cancer Services, Inc., a nonprofit support agency in Winston- Salem, NC. She has been working with people facing cancer for over 10 years. Her survivor-inspired blog can be found at You can also connect with Julie on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube. Find her @CancerDietitian.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2016.