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Care During Chemotherapy and Beyond

Managing Nutrition during Cancer and Treatment



Nutrition plays a major role in cancer development and treatment. Malnutrition, a condition that occurs when the body is lacking nutrients, is a common problem in cancer patients that has been recognized as an important component of poor outcomes and treatment delays. Not surprisingly, weight loss has also been identified as an indicator of poor prognosis in cancer patients. According to the National Cancer Institute, both malnutrition and weight loss can affect the body’s ability to regain acceptable blood counts between chemotherapy cycles; this can directly affect treatment schedules and achieving successful treatment outcomes.

Malnutrition can be prevented through a healthy diet that provides enough fluid, calories and nutrients to maintain lean body mass (muscle) and hydration. The body uses calories and protein for energy to support organ function, muscle repair and daily activity. Total calorie and protein needs increase during cancer and treatment, as such, efforts should be focused on meeting these increased needs through foods and beverages.

The basic first need of the body is to take in enough energy (calories) to support functioning of organ systems, muscle repair and daily activity. As long as appetite is good and you are maintaining your weight, it’s a good idea to eat a balanced diet and include a variety of healthy foods. We can look to both the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research's recommendations on components of a healthy diet to outline foods to enjoy and those to limit.

Foods to Enjoy

  • Fruits and Vegetables: Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Protein Foods: include plant based protein like beans, lentils and nuts, lean animal protein like chicken, turkey and protein foods high in omega 3 fatty acids such as fatty fish (salmon and tuna), eggs.
  • Low Fat Dairy and Dairy Alternatives (cow, soy, almond, rice etc.): milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir
  • Whole Grains and Starchy Vegetables: oats, quinoa, barley, wheat, popcorn, corn, potatoes, 100% whole grain bread, pasta, cereal and crackers
  • Nutritious Fats: Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Beverages: water, tea, coffee, milk, 100% juice

Foods to Limit

  • Sugar: sugar sweetened beverages, cereals, granola bars and yogurts, candy, cookies, cakes
  • Refined carbohydrates: white flour, white bread, white rice, white pasta
  • Red meat and processed meat: beef, pork, lamb, luncheon meats, pepperoni, sausage, bacon, ham
  • Trans fats: foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetables oils, commonly found in commercially prepared peanut butters, pastries, fried foods, boxed caked mix, margarines and shortening. Read labels and look for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredient list to be sure.

The preferred way to obtain vital nutrients is through the diet. The vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals needed to help our bodies fight cancer are found in a well-balanced diet emphasizing plant-based foods. The New American Plate (pictured below) developed by the American Institute for Cancer Research offers a simple guide by which to model our meals and snacks. When planning your plate, 2/3 should include plant based foods such as leafy greens, legumes and whole grains. The remainder of the plate (1/3) can include animal foods like meat, fish, cheese and yogurt.

You may find that during treatment your appetite is not great or that you struggle with side effects that interfere with eating. When you are not able to maintain your weight with foods that we traditionally consider healthy, it is acceptable to expand idea of healthy foods to include all foods that provide calories and protein as these will meet our basic need for energy.

The New American Plate

For information on modified diets or managing nutrition related side effects click on the links below:

For more information on nutrition recommendations during cancer treatment and for cancer prevention, click on the links below:

Due to variation in specific illness and treatment plans, eating practices of individuals diagnosed with cancer should be assessed throughout the continuum of care. Request an appointment with a registered dietitian at your treatment facility for a comprehensive nutrition assessment and tailored nutrition therapy plan to reflect your personal treatment goals.