Good nutrition is important for everyone. But when we are sick, sometimes we don’t feel like eating. Cancer and its treatments can affect our appetite and our interest in food, and that can make proper nutrition more of a challenge. It’s important to eat as well as possible during cancer treatment and during recovery.
In addition to loss of appetite, people being treated for cancer might experience:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sore or dry mouth
- Upset stomach
- Changes to the way things taste
- Unwanted weight gain
- Difficulty swallowing
All of this means you may have to think a little differently about how and when and what you eat. Here are some tips you can try:
- Eating smaller meals more often might be easier than the usual larger meals. You can always eat more when you’re feeling hungrier.
- Having no appetite doesn’t mean you should stop eating, so you may find it easier to schedule times to eat and eat a little bit each time.
- Keep snacks on hand that you can enjoy when you want them. Pick snacks that require no preparation – like nuts, dried or fresh fruit, cheese or your favourite flavour of ice cream.
- When considering a healthy eating plan, look for ways to save preparation time, like buying pre-cut vegetables.
- Consider a supplement. If you don’t feel like eating, there are some nutritious and tasty liquid meal or snack replacements you might enjoy.
- If hot foods that you usually enjoy don’t appeal to you because of their smell, consider a cold meal instead.
Eating well will make you feel better and help you keep your strength up while your body is undergoing the stresses of treatment. It may also help you manage some of the side effects of your treatment. Your healthcare team – which often includes a dietitian or nutritionist – can help design an eating plan that is just right for you, taking into account your likes and dislikes, your schedule and your nutrient needs.
(And did you know? Light or moderate exercise may not only make you feel better, but can help to stimulate your appetite. Ask your doctor about an exercise plan that fits your situation.)
If you are having chemotherapy, you may have low red blood cells (anemia), which means you might need more iron than usual. Good sources of iron include grain products; vegetables like spinach, broccoli, potatoes and peas; fruits like raisins and prunes; and meats and meat alternatives like liver, pork, lean beef, lentils, egg yolk and soy milk.
If you have a problem with nausea during treatment, it might help to nibble dry crackers or toast when you first wake up. Ginger tea might also help settle your stomach, and you may want to avoid spicy or heavy meals until you are feeling a little stronger. If one of your favourite foods is the cause of your nausea, stop eating it for now – you can always return to it after treatment is over.
Nutrition is just as important once you are on the road to recovery. Your doctor and your nutritionist can help you with a plan that will build your strength and ensure good eating for life.
Please speak to your healthcare professional before starting any new exercise program.