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The Dish on Good Nutrition for Cancer Survivors

by Cara Anselmo, MS, RDN, CDN

Wellness image

Nutrient-rich homemade smoothies are good options if you have mouth sores or a sore throat from chemotherapy or radiation.

Maintaining good nutrition during and after cancer treat­ment is essential for recovery. A healthy diet can help boost energy, regulate body weight, fight infection, and decrease treatment-related side effects. It also can (and should!) be a delicious part of your daily life.

While some nutrition guidelines are practical for almost everyone to follow, keep in mind that every body is different. Depending on where you are in your treatment, the type of can­cer you have, and what your immediate and long-term goals are, your best approach to eating well might be very different from that of the person next to you in the doctor’s office.

For most people, a primarily plant-based diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, adequate protein, and healthy fats is ideal. Limit foods like beef, butter, and white flour. Instead, reach for foods like beans, olive oil, and whole wheat more often.

You may have heard the phrase “sugar feeds cancer.” It’s a hot topic, but it’s not the whole truth. Eating too much sugar – or too much food, period – can lead to a condition called insulin re­sistance, as well as unnecessary weight gain. Both outcomes may in­crease cancer-related risks. It’s generally a good idea to limit added and refined sugars, like those in sodas, cakes, and even some fruit-flavored yogurts. But don’t worry about the sweetness you enjoy from a cup of berries or a melon. And if you feel like indulging in a cookie now and again, it’s OK. Think moderation instead of elimination.

For most people, a primarily plant-based diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, adequate protein, and healthy fats is ideal.

Author of Article photo

Cara Anselmo

If you’re struggling to keep weight on or regain the weight you lost during or after treatment, you might need to liberalize your diet more than if you’re trying to lose or maintain weight. Try eating ice cream. It’s very calorie dense and tends to be easy to eat – a blessing if you’re trying to keep your weight up (but not if you want to lose weight).

Hydration is important. Drinking plenty of water (usually about one and a half to two liters daily) is the best natural detox there is. If getting enough to drink is a challenge, consider eating soups, broths, and fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables to increase your fluid intake. Just as you wouldn’t expect to get all your nutrients from only one meal, spread out your fluid intake and sip water throughout the day.

In most cases, it’s best to get nutri­ents from whole foods rather than from dietary supplements. Think kiwis and broccoli instead of a vitamin C tablet. It’s all too easy to get excessive amounts of certain nutrients from supplement pills, which can be just as hard on your body as not getting enough nutrients. In addition, certain dietary supplements may actually interfere with cancer treat­ments. Always talk to your dietitian or doctor if you’re thinking about taking any dietary supplement – even if it seems safe and simple.

Side effects from treatments vary, so there’s no cookie-cutter approach to preventing them. If you’re feeling nauseated, ginger tea (hot or iced) and plain toast may help soothe your stom­ach. You’ll want to avoid strong odors (from food and in general), greasy foods, and very large meals. If you have mouth sores or a sore throat from chemo- therapy or radiation, consider sipping nutrient-dense liquids, like homemade shakes and smoothies, through a straw. Avoid foods that are spicy or acidic, like orange juice and tomato sauce. Changes in taste can be troubling, but don’t force yourself to eat a particular food if it tastes terrible to you. Replace it with something more palatable.

Fatigue is another common side effect of cancer treatment, so be sure to have easy-to-prepare foods on hand. Recruit help from family and friends. Let them know what would benefit you most, whether it’s your favorite home­made pasta dish, bags of fresh farmers market vegetables, or a blender for making smoothies.

As with all things in life, make sure you see both the forest and the trees when it comes to healthy eating with cancer. In other words, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Your joy, health, and best possible quality of life matter most.

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Cara Anselmo is a nutritionist at the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center of Mem- orial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY. She is also a certified yoga instructor who has been actively teaching for more than six years. You can follow her at twitter.com/CaraAnselmo.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.