Revealing a cancer diagnosis in your circle often opens the floodgates to well-meaning nutritional advice that can lead to going down unhelpful rabbit holes. There is a mass of information out there which can be confusing and frustrating.
Omy Naidoo, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (Adsa), says our food preferences and eating habits are deeply entrenched. It is therefore important to get optimal supportive nutrition during a vulnerable time.
“Cancer propels the body into a catabolic state where both muscle mass and fat are breaking down, therefore the nutritional needs of cancer patients increases. To meet this, there needs to be a careful focus on protein, calorie and vitamin intake,” he says.
“Unfortunately, this need for increased nutrition comes at a time when it’s highly common to experience a general loss of appetite and the side effects of treatment that can seriously impair a patient’s interest in eating. This makes a focus on nutrition a critical part of a patient’s cancer journey.”
While nutritional support for cancer patients focuses on avoiding malnutrition, some foods are allies, and some are to be avoided.
This is what Faaizah Laher, also a dietitian representing Adsa, advises. She strongly believes there are certain foods to avoid during cancer treatment and recovery, while other foods are an absolute must.
What to avoid during cancer treatment and recovery
- Avoid or limit alcohol.
- Avoid or limit highly refined, highly processed foods.
- Limit foods high in sugar, including sweets, cakes and sugary drinks.
- Limit foods that are high in salt.
- Limit foods that are high in animal fats.
- Avoid or limit cured meats such as bacon, ham and sausages.
What to focus on
- Eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits every day.
- Enjoy lean animal protein such as chicken breast and fish.
- Include more plant-based foods high in protein such as beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, quinoa and soy-based foods.
- Choose whole-grain options such as brown bread, brown rice and wholewheat pasta.
- Increase your intake of nuts and seeds.
- Focus on sources of healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados and fatty fish like sardines.
Bypass nutritional roadblocks
Naidoo says, “Cancer patients undergoing treatment often experience a severe loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, as well as dysgeusia which is taste alterations. Very often these patients need high protein, vitamin-containing supplements which they drink two to three times per day.”
Some patients need tailored diets to help them get through spells of nausea and vomiting, and this is exactly how your dietitian can help you.
“It’s important to remember that cancer patients need more nutrition. However, they typically end up taking in much less than usual due to these symptoms.
“The nett effect of this is that patients can lose muscle mass and become malnourished. This is precisely what you want to avoid as malnutrition then becomes an independent risk factor for poorer outcomes.”
If you or a loved one are dealing with these challenges, then you need to reset your daily nutritional regime:
- Focus on smaller, lighter meals eaten more frequently than the standard three meals a day.
- Experiment with healthy snack foods that are always on hand such as wholewheat crackers, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.
- Try out delicious nutrient-rich smoothies.
- Add nuts and seeds to yoghurt, cereals, smoothies, and even casseroles.
- Make frozen lolly treats from fresh fruit juices, fruit, yoghurt and smoothies.
- Use nutritional supplements prescribed by your health professional.
Most importantly, remember that combatting malnutrition is your goal. Take action and get professional nutritional advice to help the cancer patient maintain their weight as best as possible.