Proper nutrition plays an important role in reducing your risk of developing cancer and in helping your body battle the disease after a cancer diagnosis. In fact, protein and calorie malnutrition is the most common secondary diagnosis in cancer patients.
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A cancer-prevention diet includes fresh vegetables, fruits and lean sources of protein. Many experts say this diet, along with not smoking and daily exercise, is an effective way to reduce the risk of cancer.
Dietitian Lindsay Malone, MS, RD, LD, works with cancer patients and says many newly diagnosed cancer patients want to begin eating a cancer-prevention diet, but because of increased calorie needs, she recommends a diet with higher calorie and more nutrient-dense foods.
“Cancer patients face a cascade of challenges,” she says. “There is an increase in metabolism but a decrease in appetite. Many develop taste aversions, taste changes, digestive changes or logistical difficulties such as swallowing or chewing, in addition to side effects from medications. Maintaining weight and muscle is one of the biggest challenges.
“If you’re only eating a few bites of food at a time, they need to be packed full of calories. For example, use butter on whole wheat toast and make pudding with whole milk to boost calories.”
The role of the dietitian in a patient’s treatment team is to identify any impediments to adequate nutrition. Good nutrition not only is important for a patient’s health, but also helps to prevent complications and treatment delays.
“We’re still learning precisely how nutrition affects cancer and its treatment,” says Malone. “For example, researchers are working to determine the role of antioxidants in cancer treatment: Do they protect healthy cells, or do they help cancer cells grow stronger? It’s a fascinating area of study.”
Supplements and alternative therapies
“It’s important to treat each cancer patient as an individual with specific needs and challenges,” says Malone. “It’s not one-size-fits-all when it comes to diet and nutrition.”
Malone works with patients according to what they’re willing to do and the resources available to them, such as family support and ability to shop for and prepare food. “Our patients come from around the world, so often there are cultural and dietary considerations and restrictions,” she says. “I offer suggestions to help them increase their calories and protein to provide essential nutrients and meet their body’s energy needs.”
Many patients ask about complementary and alternative supplements. “One patient’s family brought camel’s milk with them from Africa because they believe it bolsters the immune system,” recalls Malone. “Another wondered about the efficacy of mistletoe extract. Because results of treatment plans are based on people who are not taking supplements, we encourage patients to avoid them unless prescribed by their doctor.”
Diet and nutrition tips
Malone offers these diet and nutrition tips for cancer patients:
- Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
- Plan ahead to manage medication side effects.
- Be physically active for 30 minutes daily.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
- Avoid sugary drinks.
- Drink mostly caffeine-free beverages to stay hydrated.
(If you fill up quickly, consume beverages separately from meals and snacks.)
“It’s important to talk with a diet and nutrition specialist as part of a cancer treatment plan,” says Malone. “Proactive nutritional care can make a tremendous difference.”