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Nutrition Support During Cancer Treatment

17 May 2021

6 min

Cancer is a widespread disease caused by acquired genetic cell mutations that result in uncontrolled cell growth. These mutations originate from a multitude of factors, mostly external. Treatment of cancer is generally a long and invasive process for patients.

Therapy side effects are very common and they can have a significant impact on quality of life and health outcomes. Proper nutrition during cancer treatment can help improve your experience and possibly even your disease outcomes.

While it is important to stress that there are no miracle foods to treat cancer, there are some ways to optimize your nutrition if you’re faced with a cancer diagnosis. 

 

Nutrition and cancer

The global prevalence of cancer continues to increase, with an estimated 18.1 million new cases of cancer in 2018 according to IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer).

Research has shown that healthy diet and lifestyle habits may help prevent 30-50% of cancers. In comparison, the research on nutrition optimization post-diagnosis is extremely limited. So, what should you focus on in your diet after a cancer diagnosis has been made?1,3

Your immune system works best when it’s fuelled with optimal nutrients.4 Therefore, it’s a good idea to prioritize your diet and understand what can affect your nutrition status.

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Cancer patients are malnourished, which is proven to have negative effects on health outcomes.1


For nutrition support during cancer treatment, patients should focus on a general healthy diet, providing fruits, vegetables and wholegrain, while additionally considering:1

  • Getting enough overall calories to prevent weight loss, and
  • Increased protein intake to promote muscle maintenance.
 

What should I eat if I have cancer? What is cancer nutrition?

There is a strong link between nutritional status and your body’s ability to deal with disease. High nutrient availability of vitamins, minerals, fiber, proteins and antioxidants, can help support your body’s immune function.4

A diet that emphasizes nutrient-dense whole plant foods, such as grains, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, is recommended for cancer prevention.8-10

That being said, the quality of dairy proteins exceeds that of plant, and particularly with cancer of the head and neck, or gastrointestinal tract, meeting protein requirements can be difficult without nutritional supplement drinks for cancer patients.

In general, rather than aiming for perfection, having grace with yourself and making healthy choices as much as is tolerable is a better goal.

 

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How chemotherapy can affect nutrition for cancer patients

Chemotherapy is a common treatment method for cancer, which works by killing the rapidly dividing cancer cells. As this targets the cell division system the impact on the healthy cells in your body is limited. Unfortunately, it’s known to come with numerous side effects that make it difficult to eat as well as you may normally.

Many people undergoing chemotherapy experience severe nausea, vomiting, mucositis, dry mouth and taste alterations resulting in loss of appetite. Not eating as much as normal can lead to unintended weight loss. Paired with a lack of weight-bearing activity, prolonged poor food intake can ultimately lead to muscle wasting

 

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How to increase calories for cancer treatment

With the potential side effects of chemotherapy, as well as reduced energy levels, it can be hard to get enough nutrition during cancer treatment

Some people may feel best eating smaller, more frequent meals. Others may find it more tolerable to increase calories per volume but reduce overall food intake and the effort required to prepare meals. 

One option is commercial liquid supplements, many of which have been formulated with medically-induced poor appetite in mind and are frequently utilized in the hospital setting. These products are designed to maximize calories and protein in just one small serving, to support weight maintenance.

Another option, especially when you’re in the setting of your own home, is to make high-calorie shakes and smoothies using whole foods. These can help you get an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals, in addition to calories and protein. 

Liquid smoothies are generally easier to consume than solid foods and a more tolerable way to increase food intake, especially when you’re suffering from reduced saliva production or low appetite.

High-calorie shakes for cancer 

Using a high-speed blender, you can combine healthy, energy dense ingredients to make a recipe that supports weight maintenance and nutrition status. This is also a good way to accept support from others looking for ways to be helpful in your recovery.  

Tips for making high-calorie, nutrient-dense shakes at home include:

  • Use energy-rich liquids with a flavour you enjoy instead of water to optimize calories (e.g., whole milk, canned coconut milk, or commercial liquid nutrition supplements designed to promote weight gain) 
  • Nuts, seeds, and their butters (e.g. peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, tahini, sunflower butter, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds) 
  • Use calorie-dense pitted dates for natural sweetness instead of added sugar Add a tablespoon of plant-based oil as fats provide higher levels of calories (e.g., extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, flax oil) 
  • Consider a calorie-dense Greek yogurt for energy, protein, and probiotics  
  • Blend a variety of fruits and vegetables for nutrition and flavour (e.g. leafy greens, frozen bananas, mixed berries, apples, avocados) 
  • Use 1-2 scoops of high-quality protein powders like milk or whey proteins to support higher protein intakes for muscle support 

Keeping the tips above in mind, here are a few basic ideas for making energy-dense, nutrient-packed smoothies at home. Experiment with the flavours you like and find what’s most tolerable. 

Using a high speed blender, combine the ingredients together and blend.

  • 2 cups of full-fat milk
  • 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1 apple
  • 1 cup spinach and kale
  • 1 cup frozen blueberries
  • 2 Tbsp ground flax seed 
  • 1 tsp cinnamon

Using a high speed blender, combine the ingredients together and blend.

  • 2 cups of a complete oral nutrition supplement
  • 2-3 pitted dates
  • 2 Tbsp chia seeds
  • ⅓ cup peanut butter
  • ⅓ cup raw cashews
  • 4 Tbsp cocoa powder or chocolate protein powder
  • 1 frozen banana

Using a high speed blender, combine the ingredients together and blend.

  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 ½ cups full fat milk
  • 2 cups leafy greens
  • ¼ cup green peas
  • ½ - 1 avocado
  • 1 cup frozen pineapple chunks
  • ½ cup frozen mango chunks 
  • ½ cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp hemp seeds 


Herbal supplements and cancer treatment

Complementary and alternative medicine for cancer, like herbal supplements, are often marketed to be attractive. It’s important to discuss these with your treatment provider before adding them to your routine.

Not only may these be poorly researched in the setting of cancer some may actually interfere with medications and be potentially dangerous for some people. This isn’t to say they can’t be helpful, but more data is needed.11

If an herbal supplement is deemed appropriate for your treatment plan, it’s recommended to find one that has been independently tested by a third party. This verifies that the product contains what’s listed on its bottle, in the amounts claimed, and doesn’t contain unsafe amounts of potential contaminants. 

This extra level of caution is especially important for people who are immune-compromised, as in the setting of cancer treatment. 

 

Optimizing your nutrition during cancer is one of the best things you can do to improve your treatment experience. Focus on nutrient-dense whole foods to best promote your health and support your immune system. 

Lean on liquid nutrition as much as you need to help meet calorie, protein, and micronutrient needs, especially during times when appetite is poor or eating solid foods is difficult. While good nutrition can be challenging in these times it is important to focus on what works well for you and what foods meet your current needs. 

Do not hesitate to work with a dietician either. These health experts can help you designing a tailored nutrition plan to support your disease trajectory.

The author

Ana Reisdorf

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and freelance writer with 12-years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics.

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