Proper nutrition is a crucial factor in your cancer therapy, as your body needs plenty of calories and protein to heal, fight infection, 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 and what you are able to eat. Loss of appetite, change in tastes, nausea and sensitivity to food odors are just a few of the challenges. However, it’s essential that you strive to consume a nutritious, well-balanced diet with an emphasis on protein and a variety of healthful foods.
Here are some guidelines to help you understand which foods to choose 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, studies suggest that breast cancer patients who eat a low-fat diet have a significantly lower rate of recurrence than those who eat a high-fat diet. Many researchers and healthcare professionals now think it’s time to re-examine the traditional approach and are urging their patients to eat a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet that includes “healthy fats” (e.g., unsaturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats).
- 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 grains are natural, unprocessed foods packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals as well as iron, fiber, magnesium, and 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, bulgur 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 good health.
Consider upping your intake of:
- Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and Swiss chard
- Cruciferous vegetables, which are filling and filled with goodness — e.g., 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. Vitamin C is important, so if you’re not be able to eat citrus fruits, try applesauce or peach nectar.
- Green, leafy vegetables, which are high in iron
Protein is crucial for helping your body stay strong. While meat is often the first thing that comes to mind in terms of sources of protein, there are plenty of other options to consider.
- Reduced-fat peanut butter, yogurt, cheeses or milk
- Legumes, such as soy beans, chickpeas, black beans or kidney beans
- Red meat, fish and poultry — just be sure to select lean cuts to keep your fat intake down
There is no substitute for getting vitamins, minerals and fiber directly from whole foods, but if you find that consuming enough is simply too challenging, talk with your doctor about drinking nutritional supplements. Again, make sure the ones you choose are high in protein and low in saturated fat.
In general, you’ll serve your body’s needs best by drinking plenty of water and avoiding salt, caffeine and alcohol.