Eat Well. Be Well.
The Scoop on Overcoming Barriers to Good Nutrition
by Mary-Eve Brown, RD, LDN, CSO
When you’re being treated for cancer, it can be difficult to get the nutrition you need. Side effects of the disease and its treatment can interfere with your ability to eat well. However, research has shown that people who maintain their weight and strength during treatment are better able to handle treatment-related side effects and have an overall better quality of life. If you’re having trouble eating well during treatment, consider the following strategies for overcoming the barriers to good nutrition.
When your appetite is low, it may be easier for you to eat smaller, more frequent meals. Your body requires more protein while you’re receiving cancer treatment, so be sure to include a source of protein in each meal. Some high-protein foods to consider are nonfat or reduced-fat milk, yogurt, soy, eggs, nuts, beans, fish, poultry, and beef.
When you don’t have much of an appetite, sometimes drinking can be easier than eating. All caffeine-free fluids are hydrating, so by drinking nourishing, nutrient-rich beverages, you’re getting nutrition plus hydration – an added benefit. Try vegetable juices, fruit and vegetable juice blends, smoothies, shakes, creamy or blended bean-based soups, and soy or dairy milk, all of which contain needed calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Eating well is an important part of feeling well.
When you’re experiencing painful mouth sores, you’ll want to eat foods that are soft, moist, and at room temperature or colder, like avocados, cooled soups, yogurt, cottage cheese, applesauce, hummus, mashed beans, mashed potatoes, melons, bananas, and eggs.
Eating small portions of cold or room-temperature foods will help keep you from being overwhelmed by food smells that might exacerbate your nausea. Avoid greasy, fried, spicy, and sweet foods. Instead, eat bland dishes, such as pasta with olive oil, broth-based soups, sherbet, yogurt, or baked potatoes topped with cheese. Drinking ginger tea, a natural nausea remedy, can also be helpful. Boil a teaspoon and a half of peeled and grated ginger root in two cups of water for ten minutes, let cool, and enjoy.
To conserve your energy, choose foods that require little chewing, like pudding, yogurt, eggs, hummus, and smooth peanut butter. Keeping foods on hand that require little to no prep work can also help you conserve your energy. Stock up on foods that are ready to cook, frozen meals, and individually portioned foods. If possible, ask friends and family to help you shop for groceries and prepare meals when your energy is low.
Eating well is an important part of feeling well. If you’re still experiencing barriers to eating well and getting the nutrition you need, consider seeking out a registered dietitian in your area who can individualize an eating plan to meet your needs.
What does it mean to eat well?
Eating well involves consuming a variety of foods that provide adequate calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals to help maintain a person’s weight, strength, and health. Both the American Cancer Society and the American Institute of Cancer Research recommend following a prevention diet, which can be broken down into three main guidelines:
1 Eat plenty of unprocessed plant-based foods. These foods are naturally low in fat, high in fiber, and packed with antioxidants. Some examples of plant-based foods include whole grains, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fruits. It’s important to include a variety of plant-based foods in your diet. Fruits and vegetables of all colors provide different cancer-fighting nutrients.
2 Cut back on high-fat animal products. High-fat meats and other animal products lack fiber and cancer-fighting antioxidants and are high in saturated fat. Examples of high-fat animal foods include processed meats, such as bacon and sausage; fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb; and full-fat dairy products. Instead, choose nonfat dairy products; eat smaller portions of red meat, less often; and limit processed meats.
3 Choose healthy fats. You don’t necessarily have to follow a nonfat or low-fat diet, but your diet should include healthy fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, and herring.
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Mary-Eve Brown has been a registered dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for more than 20 years. She is also a board-certified specialist in oncology with the Academy, and has been an outpatient oncology dietitian at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore, MD, for more than 13 years.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2014.