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Proper nutrition is a crucial factor in your cancer therapy, as your body needs plenty of calories and protein to heal, fight infections and withstand chemotherapy and radiation. In fact, the National Cancer Institute reports that proper nourishment can increase the effectiveness of certain cancer treatments and may even improve your chances for recovery.

Unfortunately, cancer and its treatments can bring a host of problems that affect how you eat. Loss of appetite, change in tastes, sensitivity to food odors and nausea are just a few of the challenges. However, it's essential that you strive to ingest a healthy, well-balanced diet with an emphasis on high protein and a variety of healthful foods.

Following are some guidelines to help you understand which foods to stick with and why.

The Fat Factor

Traditionally, cancer patients were encouraged to eat a high-calorie, high-fat diet to help them gain and maintain weight. However, a recent study suggests that breast cancer patients eating a low-fat diet had a significantly lower rate of recurrence than those eating a high-fat diet.Many researchers and healthcare professionals now think it's time to reexamine the traditional approach and are urging their patients to eat a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet that includes "healthy fats." That includes foods that are high in unsaturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

Some tips:

  • Avoid foods heavy in saturated fat, such as butter, vegetable shortening and whole milk dairy products.
  • Cook with olive, sunflower, canola soybean, sesame and peanut oils.
  • Add some sliced avocado to your salads.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds.
  • Eat plenty of fish rich in Omega-3 acids, such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel.

Whole Grain Foods

Whole grains are natural, unprocessed foods packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals as well as iron, fiber, magnesium, B and E vitamins. They've long been linked to reduced risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. Eating them while you're undergoing treatment is a great way to fill up on healthy complex carbohydrates.

Here are just a few ways to enjoy whole grains in your diet:

  • Eat oatmeal - whole or rolled - for breakfast
  • Choose breads that are labeled "whole grain" - not just "whole wheat."
  • Prepare brown rice or whole-wheat pasta as alternatives to their refined counterparts.
  • Get creative and explore ways to cook with other whole grains, such as millet, quinoa, bulgar or barley.
  • Snack on popcorn

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are essential sources of the vitamins, minerals and fiber your body desperately needs to maintain health. Johns Hopkins recommends at least five servings a day for breast cancer patients.

Consider upping your intake of:

  • Green leafy vegetables, like spinach and Swiss chard.
  • Cruciferous vegetables, which are filling and filled with goodness - think broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard greens or brussels sprouts. 
  • Legumes, such as peas, soy beans and lima beans as well as lentils and black, kidney or pinto beans.
  • Fresh fruits, including oranges and grapefruit for Vitamin C and raspberries or blackberries for added fiber.
  • Green, leafy vegetables are high in iron. Vitamin C is important. You may not be able to eat citrus fruits, but try apple sauce or peach nectar.

Protein

Protein is crucial for helping your body stay strong. Although meat is perhaps the first thing that pops to mind as a protein source, there are plenty of other options for you to consider.

Some suggestions:

  • Reduced fat peanut butter, yogurt, cheeses or milk. 
  • Eggs.
  • Legumes such as soy beans, chick peas, black beans or kidney beans
  • Red meat, fish and poultry. Just be sure to pick lean cuts to keep your fat intake down.

Supplements

There's no substitute for getting vitamins, minerals and fiber directly from whole foods, but if you find eating enough is simply too challenging, talk with your doctor about drinking nutritional supplements. Just make sure yours is high in protein and, again, low in saturated fat.

Plus

In general, you'll serve your body's needs best by drinking plenty of water and avoiding salt, caffeine and alcohol.