How to eat well during cancer treatment

During cancer treatment it may be difficult to eat due to loss of appetite or other side effects. Our registered dietitian offers tips to help you eat well.

One of the most common questions when a patient is seen at the Botsford Cancer Center is “What should I be eating, or not eating?” It is encouraged to maintain a balanced diet, which includes: lean proteins and lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.  Also, avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar.

When you have cancer it is extremely important that you eat well to keep up your strength and help cope with side effects that you may experience from treatment; whether it is radiation, surgery or chemotherapy. When you are healthy, eating enough food is not often a problem. But, when you are dealing with cancer treatment, this can be a real challenge.

Generally speaking, the body needs a balance of calories and protein to function at its best.

Prior to treatment it is important to prepare your body by eating a healthy diet. This can increase your strength, prevent your muscle mass from breaking down, and help you fight infection. It may even help you withstand the side effects of treatment.  While cancer treatments are designed to kill cancer cells, these treatments can also damage healthy cells. Side effects may present themselves when these healthy cells become damaged, which can lead to eating problems.

Common eating problems during cancer treatment include: appetite loss, changes in sense of taste or smell, constipation, diarrhea, dry mouth, lactose intolerance, nausea, sore mouth, sore throat and trouble swallowing, vomiting, weight gain and weight loss.

Each patient is different and assessed on an individual basis. For this reason, there is no way to know if you will experience eating problems and, if so, how bad they will be.  Side effects and eating problems will depend on the type of cancer you have, where it is on your body, what kind of treatment you are receiving, how long treatment lasts, and the doses of treatment you receive.  Sometimes side effects from cancer or its treatment can make eating a difficult task. When this happens it becomes increasingly difficult to follow general nutrition guidelines, and you may need to consider changing your eating plan.

If you start to have eating problems and are unsure of what to eat, tell your doctor, nurse or dietitian right away.

Tips for getting the most from your meals

While undergoing cancer treatment, large meals can seem overwhelming. They may also seem unappealing. This may be due to a decreased appetite and early fullness during meals. The following suggestions might help you get enough calories and protein:

    1. Eat small meals 5-6 times daily instead of 3 large ones.  Eat larger meals when you feel well and are rested
    2. Serve your reduced portions of food on salad plates instead of dinner plates
    3. Drink liquids that are high in calories such as hot chocolate, fruit juices and nectars.
    4. Avoid low-calorie drinks such as water, coffee, tea, and diet drinks.
    5. Keep snack foods that appeal to you readily available at home and at work
    6. Eat your favorite foods at any time of the day
    7. Use a variety of colors and textures to make food appealing.  Change the form of food-for example, make a fruit milkshake instead of eating a piece of fruit.
    8. Make dining a good experience. Do this by creating a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere
    9. Aromas such as bread baking or bacon frying may help boost your appetite
    10. When it is hard to eat, drink a liquid or powdered meal replacement such as: Ensure, Boost or Carnation Instant Breakfast
    11. Drink liquids throughout the day, even when you do not want to eat

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About Denise Cykiert, RD

Denise is a registered dietician at Botsford Hospital and Botsford Cancer Center.
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