What is the best diet for cancer patients?
First and foremost, I want eating to be a pleasurable experience for my cancer patients. Many of them ask questions about how to best approach their dietary and nutritional needs while undergoing cancer treatment. Others are convinced that following a certain cancer diet will give them the upper hand on the disease.
I certainly acknowledge the value of a balanced, nutrient-rich diet and advise my patients to be health conscious as they choose what goes on their plate. But I am also of the belief that the chief pursuit in planning the diet of a cancer patient should be joy-filled, guilt-free eating that provides the body the calories and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) it needs.
Plus, sharing a joy-filled meal with family and friends can have immense therapeutic value that extends well beyond the nutrients on the table. To that end, I often determine a specific nutritional plan on a one-on-one basis with each of my patients. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach here. I take into account my patients’ likes, dislikes and sensitivities (particularly those sensitivities that may have arisen recently as a side effect of treatment).
Building blocks for a patient’s cancer diet
Get those calories
The body requires upwards of 1,600 to 1,800 calories each day to maintain weight without any activity. This number increases as exercise and other activities are incorporated into a treatment regimen. Also, while it’s somewhat uncomfortable to think about, the tumor also burns calories.
When undergoing treatment for cancer, patients may find that they frequently fall short of their caloric requirement. It is important, however to try and hit this daily minimum in order to avoid fat and muscle loss. I tend to recommend calorie-rich foods such as dairy, nuts, potatoes, beans, dense whole grains and fruit juices, and even desserts like candies and ice cream to patients who are struggling to get enough calories.
Protein forms the building blocks of the human body and it plays a big role in cellular repair as well as the formation of new, healthy cells. I direct my patients to eat lean, nutrient-rich protein sources such as fish, poultry, eggs and legumes. I try not to get too prescriptive here, though. If a cancer patient is craving a juicy ribeye steak, they certainly have my blessing.
Add a multivitamin
Sometimes patients undergoing treatment struggle to consume the recommended amount of vitamins and minerals, even if they are hitting their calorie target. In such cases, I may recommend a multivitamin to ensure that the body is receiving valuable nutrients on a daily basis. It’s important that patients speak with their doctor before adding any supplement to their diet, particularly when undergoing treatment.
Combatting low appetite and other side effects
Low appetite, nausea, extreme fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation are all common treatment side effects among my patients. While these are unfortunate and unavoidable realities of cancer treatment, a smart approach to diet and nutrition can go a long way in managing them. Additionally, there are some medications available that stimulate appetite and I will often suggest them to work in tandem with the suggestions below. The following are a few key tips for healthful eating while dealing with unpleasant side effects.
Eat small meals throughout the day
Instead of trying to consume all the day’s calories in two or three meals, it’s often easier to eat five or six small meals spread throughout the day. In addition, I recommend that patients eat their largest, most calorie-dense meal at the time of day when they are hungriest. This hunger can be especially unpredictable as appetite is affected by a range of side effects. This leads me to my next point…
Keep your favorite foods within reach
Since symptoms and appetite may come and go throughout the day, it can be helpful to keep some favorite, calorie-dense snacks on hand. My advice to my patients is to not overthink this or feel guilty about their snacking preferences. Keep a candy bar or two within arm’s reach!
A well hydrated body will be better equipped to process and digest nutrients. I often point my patients toward fruit juices or sports drinks, as they’re a good way to get hydration with the added bonus of calories and nutritional value. Plus, staying hydrated keeps energy levels up and staves off diarrhea and constipation. Sipping slowly on a hydrating liquid throughout the day is often a good approach.
While it may seem counterintuitive since activity burns calories, staying active is great for stimulating appetite, energy and mood. Plus, when undergoing treatment, it is easy to lose strength, stamina and muscle mass as even routine activities such as getting dressed and walking to the table to eat are often greatly reduced. For cancer patients, these “daily living” activities can in fact qualify as significant exercise. Unless a patient is experiencing significant pain, shortness of breath or similar warning signs, I advise that patients continue to go about their daily routine as much as they are able.
Eat what’s appealing
Sensitivities and tastes can swing wildly while undergoing treatment, so it’s important that my patient’s diets are not overly restrictive. Moreover, a cancer patient should never have to feel guilt or anxiety about eating so-called “junk foods.” In many cases, patients can and should eat what their mind and body are craving in the moment.
The bottom line is this: eating should be a rich, life-giving experience, even (or perhaps especially) in the midst of the trials of cancer treatment.