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Nutrition and Healthy Foods During Cancer Treatment

When you’re getting treatment for cancer, your body is under assault — both from the cancer and the treatment itself. So it’s more important than ever to make sure that you’re getting the nutrition, vitamins, and minerals you need to stay strong.

But sometimes during cancer treatment, eating anything is tough. While chemotherapy is notorious for causing nausea, other cancer treatments — from surgery to radiation — can also affect how you eat. Just the psychological stress alone is enough to interfere with a person’s appetite.

What’s more, the whole notion of “good nutrition” may be turned on its head when you’re in cancer treatment. “Eating healthy can mean something quite different during cancer treatment than it does before or after,” says Rachel Zinaman, MPA, RD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Evelyn Lauder Breast Center.

So what is good cancer nutrition? And how can you eat well when eating is the last thing you feel like doing? Here are some tips from the experts.
Cancer Nutrition: Maintaining Strength and Energy

When it comes to fighting cancer fatigue and boosting strength with good cancer nutrition, you have to pay attention to protein. “The radiation, the surgery, the chemo, and the cancer itself can all increase the body’s need for protein,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Protein makes you heal faster. How can you get enough protein?

“Meats, poultry and fish are great sources of protein,” says Sheri Knecht, RD, a dietitian at the South-Atlantic Division of the American Cancer Society. “But some people have trouble tolerating them during cancer treatment.” So she also recommends easy-to-digest foods such as:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy products such as milk, cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt
  • Beans, soy, and nuts — including peanut butter or almond butter

As with any nutrient, dietitians recommend getting protein from natural food sources. But if that isn’t working for you, try adding protein powders — like whey or soy — or powdered milk to your diet. If you have trouble chewing or swallowing because of your treatment, try mixing them in with soft foods such as mashed potatoes or fruit smoothies.

Don’t wait until after you’re already in treatment to beef up on protein for cancer nutrition. “We want people to be as healthy as possible before going into surgery, because their bodies will be under a lot of stress,” Zinaman tells WebMD. “It’s important to go into treatment with adequate stores of protein.”
Cancer Nutrition: Avoiding Weight Loss

Unwanted weight loss can be a serious problem for some people in cancer treatment. As your body fights the cancer, and undergoes the stress of treatment, your metabolism may kick into high gear. But while your body might need more food, you’re feeling too sick to eat it. Losing too much weight can affect your treatment or even force your doctor to stop it altogether.

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