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How To Eat Well And Stay Strong During Cancer Treatment 

Everything you need to know about nutrition to stay well-nourished during cancer treatment.

Older woman with cancer
Feb 6 2017

Having good nutrition is the foundation of health at all stages of your life. Yet when faced with a chronic diagnosis, such as a cancer diagnosis, eating the right kinds of food can play an important role in helping a person feel better and stay stronger.

Keeping up with your nutrition intake after diagnosis can help ward off weight or muscle loss. This is important because research in Seminars in Oncology found that maintaining weight, muscle mass and strength is an indicator of a person’s probability of achieving remission.

Carolyn Alish

Carolyn Alish, PhD, RD

Having the right nutrition plan is also important for protecting the immune system. A weakened immune system can lead to infections and cause oncologists to pause or alter treatment plans, explains Carolyn Alish, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian with Abbott.

Unfortunately, staying well-nourished can be challenging if you have cancer, as some treatments as well as the disease itself can affect your appetite and ability to eat.

Most importantly, ask your oncologist if there is a registered dietitian who can help create a meal plan during this critical time. And read on to learn the answers to some common nutrition questions– and how to stay well-nourished during cancer treatment. 

Q: What are the most important nutrients I should eat during cancer treatment?

Watching your intake of protein as well as total calories is important during treatment, Alish says. Both are vital to prevent losing weight and lean muscle mass, common side effects during treatment.

While the amount of calories and protein varies by person, it’s advised to keep your intake similar to what it was before diagnosis. However, if you notice a significant weight loss before or during treatment, try increasing that amount. 

Q: I don’t have an appetite. What can I do to make sure that I’m still getting the nutrients I need?

Chemotherapy, radiation and other cancer treatments often result in foods having a bitter or metallic taste, which can turn people off of their regular eating habits, says Alish. Loss of appetite and mouth sores can also be common side effects.

To combat a lack of appetite, try different foods earlier in the day, when you may be your hungriest. If you are unable to keep meals down or get your full nutrition from food alone, consider adding a nutrition supplement, which is designed to provide complete macro- and micronutrients. A review in Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle found that cancer patients were better able to hit their nutrient goals when they consume oral supplements, in addition to regular food. These nutrition drinks also have higher amounts of protein so people can maintain their muscle mass to regain strength and energy during treatment. 

Q: What can I do to help keep down foods and ease stomach upset?

In addition to appetite changes, gastrointestinal problems including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can make it difficult to keep down the necessary nutrients during cancer treatment.

Try eating frequent snacks throughout the day, rather than relying on three larger meals, to help mediate stomach issues. "Every time you choose a snack, choose foods with higher calories and protein, like sliced apples topped with peanut butter or apples and cheese," Alish says. 

Q: I’ve heard that "sugar feeds cancer." So should I avoid sugar during cancer treatment?

Sugar does not cause cancer, nor does it speed up cancer growth or interfere with cancer treatments, according to the National Cancer Institute. Cancer cells simply have more glucose receptor channels on their membranes compared to healthy cells. From a science perspective: that means it impacts only how scientists detect cancer cells, not how the cells grow or how diet affects them.

However, high-sugar foods are often refined and lacking the nutrition needed to stay healthy throughout treatment. Focus on eating healthy, balanced foods and you don’t need to worry about small amounts of sugar, Alish says.

Q: What about soy? Can it interfere with treatment outcomes?

Soy contains isoflavones, compounds that act similar to estrogen in the body. Excessively high levels of estrogen have been linked to the development of certain cancers, including estrogen-dependent breast cancer. However, there is no conclusive evidence that soy isoflavones contribute to cancer growth or is counterproductive to your treatment.

Conversely, many studies have found that soy prevents cancer, such as pre-menopausal breast cancer. Soy is also high in protein, meaning it could help prevent muscle wasting and keep you strong during treatment. 


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