Healthy Eating Strategies

Healthy food choices are always important, especially while you are receiving cancer treatment. Adequate daily intake of calories, protein, vitamins and minerals as well as fluids are needed to promote healing,  aid in minimizing side effects and prevent dehydration. If you would like to speak with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) for further guidance, ask your doctor or nurse to arrange this for you.

Healthy Eating Recommendations for Patients Receiving Cancer Treatment

Here are some recommendations to strive toward to promote good nutrition:

  • Bone health is very important for patients being treated for cancer, and foods rich in calcium as well as Vitamin D can help to optimize your bone integrity. One cup of low-fat milk provides about 300mg calcium and about 100 IU Vitamin D in addition to fluid and protein your body needs. Yogurt contains calcium and may be fortified with additional Vitamin D. Milk alternatives such as soy, rice, or almond milk have little to no calcium unless they are fortified, and these milk alternatives may or may not be fortified with Vitamin D. Your medical team may prescribe a calcium and/or a Vitamin D supplement in addition to your food choices to optimize your bone health. 
  • Eat a source of protein at each meal.  Good protein sources include lean meat, fish, skinless poultry, eggs, low-fat milk, low-fat Greek yogurt or cheese, beans and legumes, as well as nuts and nut butters.
  •  Aim for 1 to 1 ½ cups of fruit each day. Whole fruit is ideal for the fiber and phytochemicals they provide – a variety of colorful fruit will help you consume a wider range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.  The fluids fruit provides can also help keep you hydrated.
  •  Aim for 1 ½ to 2 ½ cups of non-starchy vegetables daily. (Potatoes are starchy so they do not count as a vegetable in your meal planning.) Try to include a variety of dark green, as well as bright red, orange and yellow vegetables each day.
  • Did you know your body needs at least 100 grams of carbohydrate daily just for normal brain and body functions?  Including whole grains in your meals can help you meet this minimal goal.  Whole grain cereal, brown rice, fiber-rich pasta, oatmeal or whole grain sandwich bread are some options to consider.
  • We all need to consume some fats in our diet to obtain the necessary fatty acids our bodies need to function.  Fats are high in calories, so aim for small amounts of plant sources of fat, such as olive oil, avocado, almonds, walnuts, or nut- butters.  These options can help you meet the requirements your body needs.
  • When eating is difficult during your treatment, you may consider liquid nutrition beverages to meet your calorie and protein goals. Carnation® Instant Breakfast, Boost®, or Ensure®, are convenient options to try between meals.  Or you may consider making your own protein-rich drinks with a blender, using protein powders (whey or pea powder for example) mixed with low-fat milk or milk-alternative beverages.  Fruits or nut butters can be added for additional calories and flavor variety.
  • Drink plenty of water: the average adult should aim for 6-8 cups of water each day (1.5 - 2 quarts).

If your appetite declines:

  • You might prefer to eat 5 or 6 smaller meals rather than the 2 or 3 larger meals usually eaten each day.
  • If cooking smells are unpleasant, try cool or chilled foods which have fewer aromas.
  • Remember to eat slowly and chew your foods well.
  • A pleasant atmosphere or meals enjoyed with friends or family often helps stimulate the appetite.
  • These general recommendations may be individualized based on your current health status and medical history. Your Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can provide individualized recommendations or assistance to help you meet your nutrition goals. 

Dietary Supplements and Herbals for Cancer Patients

Dietary supplements and herbals should not be taken while you are receiving cancer treatment unless they are specifically prescribed or approved by your medical team.  Even an over-the-counter multivitamin could contain a dose of a particular vitamin or mineral that may interfere with your chemotherapy or interact with a medication you are prescribed, causing more harm than good.

There is no scientific evidence that dietary supplements or herbal remedies can cure cancer or prevent its recurrence. The best way to obtain the nutrients our bodies need each day is to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources. However, if you are not able to eat a variety of healthy foods or are losing weight without trying as a result of your cancer diagnosis or treatment, you should speak to your medical team or request a consult with a dietitian.  They can help you with strategies to maximize your nutrient intake, and can work with your healthcare team to determine if dietary supplements are appropriate to meet your nutrition requirements.

American Institute for Cancer Research Recommendations for Cancer Prevention

The food and beverage choices you make each day can affect your chances of developing cancer during your lifetime.  If you are a cancer survivor, these choices can affect your chances of having a cancer recurrence, or developing a new cancer. Making healthy eating choices, staying physically active, and maintaining or achieving a healthy weight can help reduce your risk of cancer developing or recurring.  The AICR guidelines you should aim to follow are:

1.   Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.*

2.   Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.

3.   Avoid sugary drinks.  Limit consumption of energy-dense foods (particularly processed foods high in added sugar, or low in fiber, or high in fat).

4.   Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes such as beans.

5.   Limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork, and lamb) and avoid processed meats.

6.   If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 for men and 1 for women a day.

7.   Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt (sodium).

8.   Don’t use supplements to protect against cancer.

Special Population Recommendations

9.   It is best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and foods.

10. After treatment, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.

*You should not purposefully try to lose weight while receiving treatment for your cancer without your oncologist’s approval and close monitoring by your oncology team to make sure your rate of weight loss is safe and does not lead to malnutrition. 

And always remember – Do not smoke or chew tobacco.