Why are diets for cancer patients different?

A Complete Guide to Food & Diet for Cancer Patients

Having a balanced diet to ensure good nutrition during cancer treatment is important. Here's a list of food for cancer patients that can help boost overall wellbeing and maximise the benefits of treatment.

by Lorraine Bunag, R.N.

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

A balanced diet gives us the nutrients we need for energy, builds our immune system to protect us from infections, and even maintains the integrity of our organ systems to prevent illnesses.

For these reasons, health experts always emphasize how crucial it is for us to:

  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Choose whole grains over refined sugars.
  • Limit our intake of red meat and highly processed foods.
  • Cut back on our alcohol, salt, sugar, and fat consumption.

Here's the thing: cancer (or its treatments) might change the way we eat or absorb nutrients. Hence, the doctor may recommend some dietary changes depending on our needs.

Case in point, someone with cancer often needs to maintain a healthy weight - so the healthcare team may recommend a high-calorie, high-fat diet for them. Similarly, those undergoing treatment may need thick, cool foods like shakes and ice cream because they have developed sores in their mouth.

Ultimately, the medical team will look into the individual's condition, symptoms, the kind of treatment they require, and the possible side effects before they develop appropriate nutritional goals and meal plans.

The importance of good nutrition in cancer care

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

The importance of good nutrition in cancer care

Now that we have a better idea of why the diet for cancer patients may vary from our usual, healthy meals, let's talk about the benefits of good nutrition in cancer care.

When you have cancer or are undergoing treatment, good nutrition helps you:

  • Feel better; a full meal often has a soothing effect, especially for people who are undergoing treatment and need to recover.
  • Maintain your strength. It is through eating healthy foods that our body gets the nutrients to have adequate energy.
  • Maintain your weight, which is a crucial part of cancer care.
  • Better tolerate the side-effects of cancer treatments.
  • Reduce the risk of infection, which may aggravate your condition and symptoms.
  • Recover faster.

The bottom line is: establishing a healthy diet for cancer patients is part and parcel of cancer care.

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

Good food for cancer patients

To be clear, there is no one "best" food for a cancer patient. A cancer diet does not comprise of just one food. Maintaining your overall health and reducing the side-effects of cancer treatments means you need to consume a variety of healthy foods.

Below are some recommended foods for cancer patients:

1. Blueberries
If you are looking for food for cancer patients that can boost the immune system, think of blueberries.

Blueberries are not only packed with vitamin C, fibre, and manganese but are also rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants. Furthermore, one research revealed that this fruit is associated with the inhibition of cancer cell proliferation.

2. Apples
Apples are rich in polyphenols, substances that may have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and tumour-fighting properties. One study even suggested that the polyphenols in apples inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.

3. Ginger
During your cancer treatment, you may encounter certain side-effects such as nausea. Experts say that ginger relieves nausea and essentially calms the stomach.

What's even more promising is that ginger can help promote your overall health as it contains powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.

4. Carrots
One good food for cancer patients is carrots because it contains beta-carotene, a potent antioxidant that helps boost the immune system and promotes brain, skin, eye, and lung health.

Research has concluded that carrots can reduce the risk of stomach cancer by up to 26%; moreover, the beta carotene in carrots may also slow down cancer growth.

5. Green leafy vegetables
We cannot talk about the diet for cancer patients without mentioning green leafy veggies. This is because green leafy or cruciferous vegetables are powerhouses of vitamins and minerals that improve our overall health.

This is vital as it protects your body from other diseases, improves recovery, and increases your resistance to treatment side-effects.

6. Fatty fish
Fatty fish contains a lot of essential nutrients that are great for overall well-being, such as potassium, vitamin B, and of course, omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be good for the heart.

Interestingly, experts are also looking into the omega-3 fatty acids' ability to reduce or delay tumour development. Examples of fatty fish include tuna, albacore, salmon, and mackerel.

7. Walnuts
Not only can walnuts give us anti-oxidants, but one investigation concluded that it could also "reduce cancer growth".

The researchers found out that consuming walnuts could change the bacteria in our digestive system in a way that suppresses colon cancer.

8. Beans
Beans contain many cancer-fighting agents like phytates, which help slow down certain cancers, protease inhibitors that may slow tumour development, and manganese that protects cells from damages.

9. Mushrooms
Despite extensive research, we still do not have conclusive evidence that mushrooms can slow cancer growth. However, experts highlight that mushrooms are still great food for cancer patients because they can considerably boost the immune system.

10. Turmeric
The curcumin in turmeric has antioxidant properties that may reduce inflammation. Furthermore, some reports also mentioned that curcumin could slow down cancer progression, protect healthy cells, and make chemotherapy more effective.

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

A note on good food for cancer patients

While we have listed some of the best foods above, please remember that it doesn't mean you need to consume more of them than the rest of the foods in the food pyramid.

Doctors emphasise that, save for some changes that depend on the patient's individual needs, a healthy cancer diet still revolves around variety. Your foods should come from all food groups, namely:

  • Fruits and vegetables for vitamins and minerals
  • Whole grains for fibre and energy
  • Lean protein for muscle strength and tissue repair
  • Beans, nutritious fats, and dairy products

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

Preparation before cancer treatment

Cancer patients can take advantage of the period before treatment starts to prepare their body by having adequate rest and a healthy diet. A healthy diet basically involves the usual diet explained above.

Additionally, if you have an existing health condition such as heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension, do follow the doctor-recommended special diet for your condition.

Additional guidelines include:

  • Visit the dentist to ensure good oral health.
  • Learn more about the cancer treatment you will be undergoing. More specifically, find out how it will affect your eating habits and nutrient absorption. This will give you an idea of the type of diet you will need to have throughout the treatment period.
  • Fill your fridge and pantry with healthy foods that you can eat even when you feel sick. Don't forget to take into consideration your doctor's recommendations.
  • Cook foods ahead of time and divide them into meal-sized portions.
  • Reach out to your friends and family for help with grocery shopping and meal preparation.
  • Discuss with your healthcare team if there are medicines you can take to help ease potential eating problems.

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

Dietary guidelines during and after cancer treatment

Here are the two main diet considerations during and post-cancer treatment: food safety and side-effects.

Safety: Foods to limit or avoid
It is important to cut back on foods that may aggravate your health. Examples include alcohol and foods high in saturated fats, sodium, and sugars. Besides these foods, avoid the following would also help to reduce the risk of food poisoning:

  • Uncooked cold cuts; even pre-cooked luncheon meats must be reheated until 'steaming hot'.
  • Minimally-cooked eggs.
  • Unpasteurised milk, or cheese made from unpasteurised milk.
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables.
  • Ready-made or deli-salad with egg, ham, chicken, or seafood as it is not practical to reheat them.
  • Raw seafood or meat, such as sushi and sashimi.

Also, do pay extra attention when handling or preparing meals as contamination can occur at that stage as well.

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

How to cope with the side-effects of cancer treatment

Below are some of the most common treatment side-effects and how to mitigate them:

  • Nausea: Consider having small but frequent meals with foods that you like. Whenever possible, choose soft and bland foods that are easy-to-digest such as crackers, toast, and breadsticks.
  • Vomiting: Small and frequent meals are still advised but do not start eating until the vomiting stops. Additionally, take sips of clear liquid each time you vomit. Some of the food choices for cancer patients with no appetite due to vomiting include milkshakes and strained soup, as they are easier on the stomach.
  • Dry mouth: Adding sauces, gravy, or salad dressing to your food may help. If possible, consume sweet drinks or foods since they improve saliva production. It may also help to rinse your mouth every 1 to 2 hours, but do make sure to not use any alcohol-containing mouthwash.
  • Sore throat and mouth sores: First, you can suck on ice cubes to soothe or numb the mouth. Following that, choose foods that are easy to swallow. Examples include soft and tender cuts, scrambled eggs, and milkshakes. Avoiding foods that irritate the sores, such as citrus fruits, spicy foods, and crunchy foods will help. Finally, let your food cool down to room temperature before eating and use a straw when drinking.
  • Changes in sense of taste: Cancer treatment may cause food to taste bland, or too sweet, salty or metallic. Whenever possible, choose foods that you like. You can also consider using herbs and spices to season your food and add flavour.

Why are diets for cancer patients different?

Final reminders

The diet for cancer patients depends on many factors, including cancer treatment types, their side-effects, and the patient's overall health condition and preferences.

For this reason, be sure to work closely with your healthcare team as they can help you or your loved one formulate an appropriate meal plan that will boost your health for recovery, protect you from illnesses, and reduce the impact of side-effects.


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