If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with cancer, the last thing you may be thinking about is nutrition. For many patients with cancer adequate nutrition can be an enormous challenge and should be addressed early on. Following are 6 simple ways to improve your nutrition status and fight side effects of treatment.
1. Drink up. Aim for 48-64 fluid ounces (6-8 cups) of fluid per day. This can be difficult to do if you get full quickly, so sip a little bit all throughout the day until you meet your goal. Some of the side effects of treatment, like diarrhea and vomiting, increase your need for water because you are losing fluids and electrolytes; if you are having diarrhea or vomiting, you may want to include sports drinks as part of your fluid intake for the day. Other side effects like dry mouth, sore throat and constipation may be alleviated if you stay hydrated. Get a 32 fluid ounce container for water and drink two of those each day.
2. Achieve or maintain a healthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight, your goal is to maintain that weight. If you are underweight, you want to increase lean body mass. If you are overweight, you want to maintain lean body mass while losing some of the adipose tissue. No matter what your current weight, it is important to have a balanced diet consisting of plenty of lean protein, moderate carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lots of fruits and vegetables. Now is not the time to experiment with any radical diets.
3. Focus on protein. Make sure to include protein with each meal and snack because your protein needs are much higher with cancer. Good sources include fish, chicken, cottage cheese, greek yogurt, eggs, whey protein, soybeans and soymilk. If you find that you get full quickly eat the protein portion of your meal first; that way if you can not finish your meal, you will have eaten the protein to help maintain lean body mass and support immune function.
4. Start taking a multivitamin. This is particularly important if you suffer from a poor appetite, weight loss or persistant diarrhea. It’s important to replenish or build up your nutritional stores, as cancer and its treatment can be very draining. Generally, any over-the-counter multivitamin should suffice, just make sure that they contain near 100% of the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of key vitamins and minerals. Some brands of multivitamins sold at specialty nutrition stores contain much, much more than the RDAs which is unnecessary and even potentially harmful. Just stick with the basics, unless your doctor has advised otherwise.
5. Discover (and learn to love) oral nutrition supplements. If you are having a problem with weight loss and poor appetite, oral nutrition supplements can be your best friend. These include Boost, Ensure, Glucerna (for Diabetics) and Nepro (for kidney failure); and of course the generic or store brands can be used just as well. They provide the vitamins, minerals and protein to help you stay strong and healthy. Just remember, these are not designed to be your sole source of nutrients, so be sure that you are still eating as much of other foods as possible.
6. Talk to your doctor. Always discuss any dietary changes or concerns with your physician to make sure they are appropriate for you. Let your doctor know if you are experiencing any side effects from treatment, as he or she may have other solutions or recommendations. Ask lots of questions! Keeping the lines of communication with your medical team open will ensure that you get the best possible care.
By Astrid Poole, MS, RD, LD