When undergoing treatment for cancer, nutrition has never been more important. While your body is waging war with cancer cells, appetites can suffer and fatigue can make it hard to muster energy to prepare meals.
With help from a trio of experts from Woman’s Hospital — registered dietitian Brooke Schoonenberg, chief clinical dietitian Paula Meeks, and oncology social worker Robin Maggio — participants at a recent seminar “Nutrition Guidelines for Cancer Care” learned some tips for healthy eating during and after cancer treatment and were able to taste samples from prepared recipes.
“During cancer treatment, changes in taste and smell, oral health, GI discomfort, diet and poor appetite can make it difficult to get proper nutrition,” said Shoonenberg.
Common changes in taste and smell include metallic or chemical taste in the mouth, especially after eating red meat or other high-protein foods.
“I find aversion to red meat is a common complaint with cancer patients,” Meeks said.
To eliminate the metallic taste, they advise using plastic utensils and avoiding canned fruits and vegetables.
Some foods end up tasting all the same, and bitter, sweet and salty foods may have a more noticeable change. Loss of appetite and weight loss may result from these taste changes, as can food aversions.
“We tell patients, ‘don’t eat your favorite foods during cancer treatments,’ or else you may end up never wanting to eat it again,” Meeks said.
Eating more frequently throughout the day or eating smaller minimeals throughout the day may help keep appetites up. Eating high-protein food sources, such as poultry, eggs, fish, peanut butter, beans or dairy products is advisable. A good way to add calories and protein is with powdered milk, cream cheese, avocado, nut butters or dried fruit.
Make smoothies up ahead of time and freeze portions to blend later for easy preparation when fatigue sets in. Pre-cooked and prepared foods from local grocery stores also help cut down on food preparation and may cut down on bothersome kitchen smells.
Nausea, vomiting, constipation and diarrhea are the most common dietary side effects of cancer treatment. To avoid nutritional deficiencies, dehydration and fatigue, which make it more difficult to fight cancer, the panel offered tips.
Nausea and vomiting tips:
Try to stay on a meal plan, even on sick days. Plan on eating or drinking every two hours.
Always try to eat or drink something if you feel hungry.
Sit up at a 90-degree angle during meals and remain upright for at least 30 minutes after.
Avoid foods with strong odors.
Always take it slow — keep portion sizes up to ½ cup or four ounces.
Stop at the first sign of discomfort and re-try one hour later.
Constipation and diarrhea tips:
Fiber and fluid may help you feel less constipated and bloated and can help ease diarrhea.
Increase fiber slowly over the course of a few weeks, which will keep your symptoms from getting worse.
Add insoluble and soluble fiber to your diet, such as wheat bran, whole-grain breads, fruits and vegetables.
Drink enough fluids, such as prune juice, warm juices, decaffeinated teas and hot water.
Foods to choose when experiencing diarrhea include BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) or bland low-fiber foods, like skinless chicken, scrambled eggs, canned fruit. For constipation choose high-fiber grains like bran and brown rice, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds.
Seminar participant Becky Melancon, a 15-year uterine cancer survivor, said she recalls developing several food aversions during her treatment. She found she gained weight nonetheless.
“I was eating all the casseroles that people were providing me at the time,” she said.
Now, she is constantly looking for ways to eat and prepare nutritious foods. “You’ve got to help yourself be as healthy as you can,” she said.