Meal planning is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re facing a serious illness such as breast cancer. Yet eating healthy is actually an important part of your treatment plan, says Erin Rossi, RD, who works with cancer patients at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Eating well has physical, mental, and emotional benefits,” she explains. “The foods you consume can give you the energy you need to get through treatment with as few side effects as possible while helping you maintain a sense of well-being and control.” Eating is pleasurable too, and when you aren’t feeling at the top of your game, you’ll do well to treat yourself to delicious and nutritious eats.
With that in mind, put these nutrient-rich options on your plate as often as you can. (Always check with your doctor before making a dietary switch in case a certain food is off-limits because of interactions with treatment or other concerns.) And if you’re a friend or family member of someone with cancer and wondering how you can help, consider bringing over a meal starring these ingredients.
Tomatoes, carrots, peas, pumpkin and turnips for vitamins and fibre
Tomatoes, tomato puree and parsley (especially good for prostate cancer patients)
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage contain plant chemicals that can convert bad oestrogen into good oestrogen, and hence reduce cancer risk as well as the risk of a relapse
Asparagus and Brussel sprouts for their rich antioxidants
Bitter gourd for lowering blood sugar levels
Green leafy vegetables for calcium and iron
Oranges provide vitamin C
Bananas, kiwi, peaches, mangoes, pears and strawberries for vitamins and fibre
Deep fried, grilled, barbequed, baked meats since subjecting animal protein to high heat creates carcinogenic byproducts called heterocyclic amines
Excessive intake of salt, sugar, and oily foods
Red meat and processed meats such as bacon, ham, sausages
Preserved foods like pickles, jams, kiam chye (salted mustard green), and century eggs as they contain nitrites which are carcinogenic
Additionally, cancer patients should avoid excessive intake of vitamin supplements, as they act as antioxidants and can interfere with chemotherapy when taken in large doses.
Tomato paste or sauce
Not only are tomato-based sauces high in vitamin C, but tomatoes help mask the unpleasant mouth taste some cancer patients get while undergoing chemotherapy, says Carolyn Lammersfeld, RD, certified specialist in oncology nutrition and vice president of integrative medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Go for plain sauces without spices, which are easier to get down and keep down. (Avoid tomato products if you have mouth sores.)
Salmon, tuna, and sardines are not only stellar sources of fatigue-fighting protein but nutritional powerhouses, too. They provide omega-3 fatty acids, which can help keep your muscles strong; vitamin B12, which your body depends on to make red blood cells; and vitamin D, a crucial component of bone health, explains Lammersfeld.
When your energy and appetite are low, turning to nutrient-dense foods can help you take in the calories you need as well as key vitamins and minerals and good fats. Smart options: a couple of handfuls of trail mix, plain nuts, or even a spoonful of nut butter.
The calcium, vitamin D, and protein found in foods from the dairy aisle will contribute to healthy bones. (Choose yogurt or kefir and you’ll replenish your good gut bacteria as well.) Vegan or just don’t like the taste of milk? Sip calcium-fortified orange juice, rice milk, or soy milk.
Lean Chicken and Turkey
Because they’re bland, they’re easy to eat and digest, but they still pack plenty of protein. Lean poultry is a better choice than red meat, which may increase inflammation and contribute to chronic conditions such as heart disease.
Dark Green leafy Veggies
Broccoli, kale, romaine lettuce, spinach, watercress, and other greens offer calcium to strengthen your bones, folate and iron to pump up your blood cell production, and magnesium, which is essential for many bodily functions but often becomes low during treatment, says Lammersfeld.
Chickpeas and Beans
These mighty legumes contain high levels of protein, which protect your muscles while supplying you with steady energy so you stave off exhaustion, says Rossi.
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It’s not a myth: Ginger really does help fight nausea, a side effect of chemotherapy and some medications. Adding grated ginger to foods or tea may help ease nausea not completely relieved by antiemetics, says Lammersfeld.
Benefits of a Healthy Diet
The nutrient needs of cancer patients vary from person to person. A clinical dietitian can help you identify your nutrition goals and plan ways to help you meet them. Eating well while you’re being treated for cancer might help you:
Keep up your strength and energy
Maintain your weight and your body’s store of nutrients
Better tolerate treatment-related side effects
Lower your risk of infection
Heal and recover faster
Ease Side Effects With Food
Certain foods can help ease the common discomforts from cancer treatment.
Conquer constipation by drinking water and eating high-fiber foods like beans, lentils, vegetables, and fresh or dried fruit.
Drive away diarrhea with bland foods such as rice, bananas, and apples. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Protect mouth sores and manage dry mouth by grinding or pureeing foods to make them easier to swallow. Or eat foods that are already soft and mostly liquid, like soups and milk or yogurt shakes.
Nix nausea by choosing bland foods and foods without strong odors. Steer clear of greasy foods. Go easy on your stomach by eating small meals throughout the day. Drink plenty of water even if you are vomiting.