Nutrition and cancer: Eating right for the fight

By Eliana Lakritz

Eliana Lakritz MS RD LDN, Clinical Dietitian, Baystate Noble Hospital (WNG file photo)

We all know someone who has been or is going through a fight against cancer. It is a disease that can impact anyone, at any age. Proper nutrition is vital during cancer treatment to promote healthy cell growth, prevent excessive weight loss, fatigue, weakness, and maintain a good outlook. Malnutrition can certainly be caused by cancer. Therefore, it is important to identify problems with eating (especially those caused by treatment) and figure out ways to improve them. Below is a list of common side effects of cancer treatment and some ideas to maximize nutrition as they occur.
1) Fatigue: This is the most common side effect of cancer treatment. It will help to have done some meal prep before treatments when energy levels are high (prepare baked chicken, rice, roasted potatoes, vegetables, and soups for example to store in the freezer). Keep little to no-prep foods such as yogurts, cottage cheese, chopped vegetables, frozen dinners, and fruit cups available.
2) Nausea and vomiting: A common side effect as well. It can be difficult to stimulate appetite during these times. Small, frequent meals and snacks often to obtain proper nutrition is important. Room temperature or cold foods may stave off feelings of nausea. Hot foods often have a strong aroma, which can be very off putting. That being said, plain (not spiced) foods like crackers, pretzels, and bread may be well tolerated.
3) Diarrhea: This is especially common in gastrointestinal cancers and radiation. Drink a lot of fluids such as juice or sports drinks to replenish electrolytes lost though loose stools. A low fiber diet that contains soft fruit only, white bread/rice, meat/poultry, and hot cereals may be helpful.
4) Mouth Sores: Focus on easy to eat cold and soft foods to minimize mouth pain. Pudding, scrambled eggs, tuna/chicken/egg salad, milkshakes, smoothies, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, and popsicles are a good choice. Avoid spicy, salty, acidic, crunchy foods or those with hard edges (such as chips). Hot foods can sometimes cause pain if blisters are present. If it helps to bypass the sores with a straw, that is an option too.
5) Changes to senses: Alterations or loss of taste and smell are common with certain medications and other treatments. Certain marinades, fresh herbs, and tart/acidic flavors (vinegar, lemon  juice) can help enhance flavor. It’s also important to maintain oral hygiene. Rinse your mouth often and brush teeth adequately. Avoid silverware and opt for plastic utensils to minimize a “metallic” taste.
6) Loss of Appetite: Instead of relying on hunger cues, it can be helpful to focus on timing instead. A scheduled breakfast, lunch and dinner will establish a routine for eating. Oral nutrition supplements like Boost or Ensure can be helpful; it may be easier to drink something nutrient dense than to eat. Focus on favorite foods and if weight loss is a significant problem, do not over-restrict food choices. Take advantage of times when appetite is good by eating a larger portion.
*Special Note: There is A LOT of misinformation available to the public. Some claims lack scientific evidence and can actually be harmful to those being treated for cancer. Be especially wary of supplements that claim to help cure or prevent cancer. It is important to obtain your information from a reputable source. Ask your MD or talk to a dietitian about information you may come across. The National Cancer Institute and The American Institute for Cancer Research websites are reputable sites you can use for more information.
If you are interested in nutrition counseling, have your PCP contact Access services at 413-572-5671.

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