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Tips For Overcoming Common Nutrition Hurdles During Cancer Treatment

Here’s some crucial food for thought if you’re in the midst of cancer treatment: More than ever, good nutrition matters. Eating well can help you keep up your strength, maintain a healthy weight, lower your risk of infections, and heal faster. It might even reduce the side effects of treatment.

“Yet, during treatment it may be especially challenging to eat well,” said Lauren Peters, RD, CSO, LDN, a registered Dietitian at Fox Chase Cancer Center and a Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition.

What follows are seven common hurdles you may face because of the cancer itself or its side effects—and how to overcome them.

1. Problem: Loss of appetite

How to cope: Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day, rather than the traditional trio of three large meals. You might even set an alarm to remind yourself to eat.

To feel less full, drink most of your liquids either 30 minutes before you eat or 30 minutes afterwards, rather than during meals. Also focus on food packed with nutrition—especially high-calorie, high-protein ones, such as peanut butter, hummus, cheese, and oral nutrition supplements like Boost or Ensure.

To keep up your weight and strength, it’s OK to eat foods that may traditionally be viewed as an indulgence, such as sweets and desserts.

“If your appetite is completely gone and all you can tolerate is ice cream, that’s fine too,” Peters said. Eating something is always better than eating nothing.            

2. Problem: Changes in taste and dry mouth

How to cope: If your food tastes different, or is tasteless, try seasoning it with strong herbs and spices.  Tart citrus flavors, like lemon wedges, lemonade, and fruits can help to refresh the taste buds and provide moisture to the mouth. Freeze fruits like pineapple and grapes, or blend fresh fruit into shakes, ice cream, or yogurt to eat prior to meal time for a refreshed palate.

 “Alternatively, if you experience a metallic taste when eating or drinking—a common chemotherapy side effect—try using plastic flatware, cups, and plates,” Peters suggested.  More so, if dry mouth is making eating uncomfortable, moisten food with broth, gravy, or sauces. Suck on sugarless candy or gum to stimulate saliva. Take small bites, and chew your food well. Drink lots of fluids, and take a water bottle with you wherever you go.

3. Problem: Sore throat and mouth sores

How to cope: Stick to foods at room temperature. “That’s the least offensive temperature range for a sore mouth,” Peters said. Steer clear of rough-textured foods (like dry toast), acidic ones (like tomato-based foods), and irritating spices (like chili powder). Also eat soft, creamy foods, such as custards, pureed foods, and oral nutrition supplements.

4. Problem: Nausea

How to cope: Replace large meals with small, frequent ones, and eat bland, soft, easy-to-digest foods, such as chicken noodle soup or cream of wheat. Avoid overly sweet, greasy, fried, or spicy foods.

Strong smells may trigger nausea. To reduce smells, eat foods cold or at room temperature—they’ll be easier to tolerate, Peters said.

Ginger can help ease nausea. So, you might sip ginger tea or ginger ale or eat a piece of ginger candy.

5: Problem: Diarrhea

How to cope: “Stay away from foods high in insoluble fiber, which can make diarrhea worse,” Peters said. Culprits include dried fruits, raw fruits and vegetables (especially those containing skins and seeds), nuts, and seeds. Consider including pureed fruit and vegetable pouches or soups rather than the raw variety. You may also tolerate small portions of well cooked, softened produce choices (without skin) such as cooked carrots and green beans. Limit fatty and fried foods too. Selecting a lactose free or non-dairy alternative to traditional dairy products may also reduce your symptoms. Be sure to sip additional hydrating fluids throughout the day.

6. Problem: Constipation

How to cope: Eating high fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds can help relieve constipation. Increasing fluids is especially important when you increase your fiber intake. You can also discuss a bowel medication regimen with your doctor.

You can consult with a Fox Chase dietitian at any time while you’re a patient. These nutrition experts can offer sound advice on eating well before, during and after cancer treatment. To schedule an appointment with a dietitian, please call 215-728-2600.