Try these simple diet tweaks to help combat cancer-related fatigue.
by Danielle Karsies, MS, RD
Feeling drained? You are not alone. Almost all cancer survivors experience fatigue at some point during their treatment or recovery. According to the National Cancer Institute, fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer treatment. And it can have an enormous impact on your quality of life. However, a few simple diet tweaks can help ease cancer-related fatigue, and may even boost your energy levels.
Keep It Steady
Skipping meals or going prolonged periods without eating can lead to drops in blood sugar that can worsen fatigue and cause poor concentration. To prevent these drops, make breakfast a regular part of your day, and try to eat small meals or snacks every three to four hours throughout the day. Focus on complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat breads and pastas; fruits; vegetables; beans; and whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, and bulgur. These foods are rich in fiber and give you a steady release of energy.
Avoid quick-fix substances like simple sugars and caffeine. While they can give you a temporary energy boost, the effects are short lived and often will leave you feeling more drained once their effects wear off. You should also try not to overeat. Eating too much at one time will cause your body to expend tremendous amounts of energy digesting and absorbing the excess food.
Drinking enough fluid is especially important when dealing with fatigue because, when you don’t drink enough, your blood volume goes down, making your heart work harder. This makes doing even small tasks, like brushing your teeth, more of an effort. Aim to drink at least 64 to 80 fluid ounces of liquid per day. Try keeping a water bottle with you and drinking one-half to one cup of water every two hours.
Avoid quick-fix substances like simple sugars and caffeine. While they can give you a temporary energy boost, the effects are short lived.
For Power, Try Protein
Protein is an important building block for muscle. Muscle strength makes daily activities, such as walking and climbing stairs, more manageable. Additionally, protein helps release the energy from carbohydrates at a slower rate, giving you much-needed energy for a longer period. To meet your body’s protein needs, make sure you eat at least one to two servings of protein-rich foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, or legumes) with each meal and snack.
Fit in Some Fat
It’s important to get enough calories to maintain your weight. This ensures that you are getting enough fuel to fight fatigue. If you are losing weight, include healthy fats, such as avocado, olive oil, fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, and tuna), nuts, and seeds, in your diet. These foods are packed with healthy calories. If you are not losing weight, healthy fats are still good for you. But you should be sure to not eat too much of them, as extra weight can worsen fatigue.
• Stock your pantry with staples to avoid frequent, energy-draining trips to the grocery store.
• Try batch cooking, or making several meals at a time, on your high-energy days. You can also ask family or friends to double favorite recipes and share the extra half with you. Freeze individual portions for quick, healthy meals.
• Keep on hand healthy foods that require little preparation. For example, mixed nuts and dried fruit, hummus with vegetables or whole grain crackers, pre-packaged yogurt cups, peanut butter, tuna fish, cottage cheese, eggs, string cheese, and soup.
Adjust Your Lifestyle
You may think that you should exercise less when you are experiencing fatigue; however, the opposite is true. Studies show that moderate exercise can lessen fatigue, reduce sleep disturbances, and improve quality of life for cancer survivors.
Try to avoid sitting for longer than two hours at a time. Make a point to get up and move every couple of hours. Simple activities like taking a short walk around your house, standing or pacing while you chat on the phone, or getting up to do a few simple stretches will help get your blood flowing and give you a natural pick-me-up.
Once you’ve increased your daily movement, work on fitting in regular exercise. Just be sure to talk with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program. Experts recommend that you strive for 30 minutes of physical activity per day. However, any activity is better than no activity. So, do what you can now, and increase the duration and intensity of your physical activity as you gain endurance and strength.
In addition to diet and exercise, you should also try to keep your stress levels low and get enough rest each day, as stress and lack of sleep can contribute significantly to fatigue. For stress relief, try yoga, guided imagery, or mindfulness-based breathing exercises. When it comes to sleep, you should also aim for at least seven hours of sleep each night. Practicing good sleep hygiene can help you get the sleep you need, as well as maximize the quality of your sleep.
Still need help?
If you aren’t seeing improvement in your fatigue, talk to your doctor. Certain diseases, sleep disorders, nutrient deficiencies, and medications can worsen fatigue. Your healthcare provider can help pinpoint and treat any underlying conditions that could be contributing to your fatigue.
Danielle Karsies is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at the Michigan Medicine Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, MI.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2018.