Cancer and its treatment can disrupt normal eating patterns. A loss of appetite is common and one’s body may not tolerate certain foods as well as it normally would. These changes in how an individual’s body responds to food can affect treatment outcomes, making proper nutrition during chemo extremely important.
Why is Nutrition during Chemo Important?
Chemotherapy has several side effects that directly affect your body’s ability to maintain proper nutritional levels including: nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. These side effects can result in malnutrition, dehydration, and an impaired immune response. Maintaining proper nutrition during chemo will help you:
- Maintain your strength and energy
- Maintain a proper weight
- Maintain proper nutrient levels
- Help you tolerate treatment side effects
- Lower your risk of infection
- Recover faster after treatment
Your dietary requirements, while undergoing chemotherapy, may be very different from what you’re used to and some of your dietician’s suggestions may contradict your prior healthy eating advice. You may find yourself eating a diet much higher in protein and calories than normal, especially if you are underweight or experiencing weakness.
Nutritional Requirements during Chemotherapy
Your cancer and nutrition team will help you put together a dietary plan to ensure you get the correct amount of the following nutrients:
- Vitamins and minerals
Carbohydrates provide the body with the fuel needed for physical activity and organ function. Good sources of carbohydrates include:
- Peas and beans
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grains (brown rice, barley, quinoa)
- Whole wheat, oat, or rye flour
Your body needs protein to grow new cells, repair damaged tissue, and maintain your immune system. If protein levels are insufficient, your body may begin to break down muscles for food, you may have an impaired resistance to infection, and your body may take longer to recover from illness. People undergoing chemotherapy often require a diet higher in protein
Good sources of protein include:
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Lean red meat
- Low-fat dairy products
- Nuts and nut butters
- Soy-based foods
Fats are made up of fatty acids, which provide the body with energy, insulate body tissue, and help carry vitamins through the blood. Nutrition during chemo may require a diet higher in fat than normal in order to maintain the body’s energy levels.
Some fats are better for you than others. Your diet should focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are better for your heart and cholesterol levels than saturated and trans-fats.
Good sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats include:
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Olive oil
- Peanut oil
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower oil
Limit your intake of saturated fats to approximately 10% of your diet (saturated fats are found in milk, cheese, meat, poultry, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil). Whenever possible, avoid trans fats, which are present in margarine, shortening, snack foods, and some animal and dairy products.
Water and Nutrition during Chemo
Water is an essential aspect of nutrition during chemo. Side effects of chemotherapy such as vomiting and diarrhea can result in dehydration and dangerous imbalances in the body’s vitamin, mineral, and electrolyte levels.
Aim for the equivalent of eight 8–ounce glasses of water a day during chemo treatment—more if you’re suffering from dehydration. Remember that all liquids, including soups, milk, and teas count towards your daily water requirements.
Vitamins and Minerals
Ideally, you should receive all the vitamins and minerals you need through the food you eat. This is not always possible during cancer treatment and recovery. If needed, your cancer and nutrition team will prescribe vitamin or mineral supplements to ensure you receive the proper nutrition during your chemo treatment.
Be aware that many over-the-counter supplements contain ingredients capable of interfering with the efficiency of chemotherapy treatment. Consult with your cancer and nutrition team before starting any vitamin, mineral, or herbal supplement.
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