Try these simple tricks for getting the nutrition you need during cancer treatment.
by Elise Cushman, MS, RD, CSO, LD
Cancer comes with many side effects. Appetite loss is one of them – and a common one at that. In people with cancer, a loss of appetite can stem from the cancer itself; anxiety or depression due to the diagnosis and its treatment; and, of course, cancer treatment, particularly chemotherapy and radiation.
When you have cancer, it isn’t enough that your days be filled with medical appointments, chemo infusions, and getting poked and prodded by doctors and nurses, but you’re also encouraged – even expected – to maintain your weight and eat as “normal” as possible. Regardless of whether you have some pounds to spare, weight loss during cancer treatment can have a negative impact on treatment side effects, speed of recovery, and survival rates. So, how do you get the calories you need when you’re exhausted from treatment and busy shuttling to appointment after appointment?
Here are some simple tips and tricks to help you eat well during cancer treatment, even if it’s left you with little to no appetite.
♦ Eat often. Eating every two to three hours will maximize your calorie intake, helping you preserve muscle mass and weight. Cancer and its treatment increase your protein and calorie needs. So, if the thought of a small meal or snack is too much, try to take one or two bites of high-calorie, protein-rich foods every hour.
Don’t follow the routine of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Set a timer to remind yourself to eat and drink.
♦ Eat by the clock. Don’t follow the routine of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Set a timer or use breaks between television shows to remind yourself to eat and drink.
♦ Drink plenty of fluids. During meals, drink enough fluid to comfortably swallow while eating. And try to drink fluids between meals, as well. If water tastes off, try flavored seltzer water, diluted sports drinks or juices, herbal teas, or other noncaffeinated beverages to help meet your fluid needs. Soups, popsicles, gelatin, and even ice cream count for fluids, too. If you’re sensitive to hot and cold temperatures, allow liquids to come to room temperature before drinking them. In a pinch, you can quickly warm up liquids in the microwave so you can drink them comfortably.
♦ Curb off-putting smells. We eat not just with our eyes, but also our nose. For many people, the smell of cooking can turn off their appetite. When cooking, turn on the oven vent, open a window, or run a ceiling fan to ventilate the air. Hot foods are also more aromatic than cold foods. So, reach for room temperature or cold foods, such as cheese and crackers, chicken salad, or cottage cheese, if you find food smells to be particularly off-putting.
- Keep grab-and-go foods on hand; for example half-cup containers of cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, string cheese, granola bars, crackers, pre-sliced cheese, nuts and nut butters. These foods can also travel well.
- Be diligen with bathroom regularity, as constipation can be a downward spiral for nausea, dehydration, and lack of appetite.
- If people are offering to bring you a dish, ask them if they could divide it inot one- or two-cup containers so you can freeze portions and use them on days when you can’t even think about preparing food.
- Never leave home without snacks. Tastes and cravings can change in a blink of an eye. Keep snacks in your car or bag so you have something to eat when your appetite turns on.
- Easily distracted? Set a kitchen timer or pone alarm for every two hours to remind yourself to eat.
♦ Go for convenience. Always have single-serving foods (like string cheese, yogurt, frozen entrees, and soups) on hand. These convenient portions will be perfect for when your appetite sparks. In addition, ready-to-drink shakes or smoothies are convenient for on-the-go. These are a no-fuss way to get in calories, protein, and fluid anytime.
♦ Get active. Staying as physically active as possible not only will help you retain muscle, but it will also stimulate your appetite. No, you don’t have to train for a marathon. Light-to-moderate exercise, such as walking or yoga, can be beneficial during cancer treatment. As with any form of physical activity, make sure you check with your doctor before you start.
♦ Talk to your doctor. Discuss your symptoms with your oncologist. Some medications can cause loss of appetite as a side effect. There are also medications available that may help increase your appetite. Talk to your doctor to see if these may be right for you.
Elise Cushman is a chef and clinical dietitian at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, NH, and St. Johnsbury, VT. She is a certified specialist in oncology nutrition.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2017.