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Myth vs. Truth: Weight Loss

By Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES August 12, 2015Pearls of Wisdom Blog

Weight loss during cancer treatment is a good thing.


Many of us have struggled with achieving or keeping a healthy weight in our adult years. So much of our energy, resources, and emotions are invested in our weight loss efforts. Then cancer happens. Suddenly, you are finally losing weight. That’s a good thing, right?

No. Excessive weight loss during cancer treatment can lead to numerous health issues:

  • loss of muscle mass
  • decreased ability to fight infections (declining immunity)
  • slowed recovery time after surgery or treatments
  • declined quality of life
  • inability to tolerate your cancer treatment plan
  • poor survival or outcome

What is an excessive amount of weight loss? More than five percent or more (5%) weight loss in the past month without trying can be call for concern. In other words, involuntary weight loss or unintentional weight loss may mean trouble . Unwanted weight loss could be due to the inability to eat food or the inability to absorb the calories and nutrients from foods you do eat. These situations must be addressed quickly so you can be at the top of your nutrition game to promote healing and keep your treatment plan on track.

A six percent (6%) weight loss may mean a compromised response to cancer treatment, reduced survival rate, and decreased quality of life. Talk often with your healthcare team about your weight and side effects that prevent healthy eating. One important key to managing weight loss is to identify why you are losing weight. If weight loss is due to nutrition side effects of treatment– such as nausea or diarrhea– a referral to a registered dietitian (RD) will help. An RD can teach you the appropriate nutrition interventions to limit weight loss.

Wait a minute. Aren’t many cancer patients overweight or obese at the time of diagnosis? Yes, you are right. And, the recommendations from the oncology community about weight loss during cancer treatment are changing. The American Cancer Society (ACS) issued guidelines in 2012 saying it may be oaky for some patients to lose weight during cancer treatment, if not contraindicated, meaning that it wouldn’t affect the treatment plan or patient’s health. Cancer patients losing weight should be closely supervised by the healthcare team. ACS guidelines recommend a slow weight loss of up to 2 pounds per week with healthy food menus and physical activity.

Ask your healthcare team if weight loss is healthy for you during or after cancer treatment. You and your health are unique. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, trying to lose weight, or starting an exercise or physical activity program.

Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Author Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Nutrition Educator Margaret Martin is a Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist in the State of Tennessee as well as a Certified Diabetes Educator. Margaret graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science & Public Health from the University of Tennessee. With more than 10 years of experience in Clinical Nutrition, Margaret has also worked in the insurance industry with WellPoint Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield providing telephonic nutrition consultations, service assistance, and web-based nutrition education. In her free time Margaret volunteers with the American Lung Association’s annual “Lung Force Walk" in Middle Tennessee. She belongs to the Oncology Nutrition & Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More posts by Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

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