How do I make the best food choices throughout cancer treatment?
When you are faced with a cancer diagnosis, nutrition can be an important part of your journey. Eating a well-balanced menu during and after cancer treatment can help you feel better, maintain your strength, and speed your recovery.
Know your risk. Stomach cancer and treatment increase the risk for nutrition issues, including malnutrition. Malnutrition occurs when a person is not receiving or absorbing proper nutrition and the right amount of calories and nutrients needed for healthy bodily function. Malnutrition increases the risk for health complications, hospitalizations, and poor quality of life. Tell your healthcare team immediately about any new or worsening side effects or weight loss. For more on stomach cancer, visit our recommended resources.
Receive ongoing nutrition support. You may need ongoing support from a registered dietitian in your area, especially if you experience ongoing weight loss or severe side effects such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Ask your healthcare team for a referral to local registered dietitian who specializes in helping cancer patients. You can also ask your health insurance provider for a referral or use the Find an Expert tool provided by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). (You may also schedule a time to talk to PearlPoint’s registered dietitian for general education and guidance, but you would benefit most from having a registered dietitian as a member of your healthcare team.)
Maintain a healthy weight. Aim to avoid losing or gaining much weight during treatment. Strict dieting is not recommended during cancer treatment. Losing weight can lower your energy level and decrease your body’s ability to fight infection.
Follow your healthcare team’s nutrition instructions after a gastrectomy. A gastrectomy is the removal of some or all of the stomach that holds food at the beginning of digestion. After surgery, the stomach will hold much less food. To learn more about eating after gastric surgery, visit Gastrectomy Nutrition Guidelines.
Be on the lookout of signs of dumping syndrome after a gastrectomy. Dumping syndrome is a condition where food leaves the stomach too quickly. This causes food to “dump” into the small intestine. You can have either early or late dumping syndrome. Early dumping syndrome is caused by a shift of fluid in the small intestine. Late dumping syndrome is caused by a drop in blood sugar. Signs of dumping syndrome include: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, dizziness, burping, fatigue, or rapid heart rate. For strategies to prevent dumping syndrome, visit Gastrectomy Nutrition Guidelines.
Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Eating frequent small meals will ensure your body is getting enough calories, protein, and nutrients to tolerate treatment. Smaller meals may also help to reduce treatment-related side effects such as nausea. Try eating 5-6 small meals or “mini” meals about every three hours.
Choose protein-rich foods. Protein helps the body to repair cells and tissues. It also helps your immune system recover from illness. Include a source of lean protein at all meals and snacks. Good sources of lean protein include:
- Lean meats such as chicken, fish, or turkey
- Low-fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese or dairy substitutes
- Nuts and nut butters
- Soy foods
Be cautious of dairy products after surgery. A gastrectomy may cause lactose intolerance. Avoiding dairy products such as milk, creamy soups, ice cream, yogurt and cheese may help. Introduce dairy back into your menus slowly to see how your body handles it after surgery.
Include whole grains. Whole grains provide a good source of carbohydrate and fiber, which help keep your energy levels up. Good sources of whole grain foods include:
- Whole wheat breads
- Brown rice
- Whole grain pastas
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. Fruits and vegetables offer the body antioxidants, which can help fight against cancer. Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to get the greatest benefit. Aim to eat a minimum of 5 servings of whole fruits and vegetables daily.
Choose sources of healthy fat. Avoid fried, greasy, and fatty foods. Choose baked, broiled, or grilled foods instead. Healthy fats include:
- Olive oil
Limit sweets and added sugars. Foods high in added sugars like desserts and sweets provide little nutritional benefit and often take the place of other foods that are better for you.
Stay hydrated. Drinking enough fluids during cancer treatment is important for preventing dehydration. Aim to drink 64 ounces of fluid daily. Avoid drinking large amounts of caffeinated beverages. Too much caffeine can lead to dehydration.
Practice good food safety. Wash your hands often while preparing food. Use different knives and cutting boards for raw meat and raw vegetables. Be sure to cook all foods to their proper temperature and refrigerate leftovers right away. Read more about food safety.
Talk to your healthcare team before taking any vitamins or supplements. Some medications and cancer treatments may interact with vitamins and supplements. Choose food first as the main source for nutrients.
Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Alcohol may contribute to dehydration, can lower the abilities of your immune system, and provides no beneficial nutrients.
Most importantly, know that your cancer journey is unique to you and your treatment.