Good nutrition is especially important for people with cancer. That is because the illness itself, as well as its treatments, may affect your appetite. Cancer and cancer treatments may also alter your body's ability to tolerate certain foods and to use nutrients.
The nutrient needs of a cancer patient vary from person to person. Your doctor, nurses, and dietitians can help you identify your nutrition goals and plan strategies to help you meet them. Eating well while undergoing cancer therapy can help you to:
- Feel better
- Keep up your strength and energy
- Keep up your weight and your body's store of nutrients
- Tolerate treatment-related side effects
- Decrease your risk of infection
- Heal and recover quickly
Eating well means eating a variety of foods that provide the nutrients you need to maintain your health while fighting cancer. These nutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals.
Protein: Protein helps to ensure growth, to repair body tissue, and to maintain a healthy immune system. Without enough protein, the body takes longer to recover from illness and lowers resistance to infection. As such, people with cancer often need more protein than usual. Following surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, additional protein is usually needed to heal tissues and to help prevent infection. Good sources of protein include lean meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, nuts, dried beans, peas and lentils, and soy foods.
Carbohydrates and fats: Carbohydrates and fats supply the body with the bulk of the calories it needs. The amount of calories each person needs depends on his or her age, size, and level of physical activity. Sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, breads, pasta, grains and cereal products, dried beans, peas, and lentils. Sources of fat include butter, margarine, oils, nuts, seeds, and the fat in meats, fish, and poultry.
Vitamins and minerals: Vitamins and minerals help ensure proper growth and development. In addition, they allow the body to use the energy (calories) supplied in foods. A person who eats a balanced diet with enough calories and protein usually gets plenty of vitamins and minerals. However, eating a balanced diet can be challenging when you are receiving cancer treatment, particularly if treatment side effects persist for long periods of time. When that is the case, your doctor or dietitian may recommend a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement.
Water: Water and fluids are vital to health. If you do not take in enough fluids or if you are vomiting or have diarrhea, you may become dehydrated. Ask your doctor or nurse how much fluid you need each day to prevent dehydration.
You can use the American Cancer Society Guidelines for Nutrition for Cancer Prevention below to help you plan what to eat each day. The guidelines serve as a general guide for healthy people that lets you choose a healthful diet. People with cancer, however, may have increased nutritional needs. For example, your doctor or dietitian may suggest increasing the number of servings of specific types of food.
- Eat five or more servings of a variety of vegetables and fruits each day.
- Choose whole grains in preference to processed (refined) grains and sugars.
- Limit consumption of red meats, especially those high in fat and processed.
- Choose foods that help you maintain a healthful weight.