Eating Well During Chemo
Grace Weatherby
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2023

Eating Well During Chemo

Helpful tips for getting the most from your diet

Eating well is essential to helping your body function at its best. This is especially important for people undergoing chemotherapy. While very effective at stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, chemotherapy has the unfortunate side effect of harming healthy cells throughout the body. Good nutrition is key to rebuilding those cells and even minimizing damage from the start.

While a healthy diet consists of many components, there’s one element that is especially important to patients undergoing treatment: protein.

Often referred to as the building block of cells, protein is found in nearly every cell of the body and works to:

  • Build and maintain red blood cells, hormones, muscles, connective tissues, and enzymes 
  • Transport nutrients and medications throughout the body 
  • Maintain the balance of body fluids and reduce swelling
  • Fight infections and strengthen immunity

Because your body is working overtime during chemo to rebuild and stay balanced, your need for protein increases. Fortunately, there are plenty of sources of protein to be found in the typical diet; sources that appeal to different tastes and can typically be tolerated well even when you’re not feeling your best.

Ideally, you want to include protein in all your daily meals and snacks. Some great sources include:

Nuts and Seeds:

All types of nuts, including almonds, peanuts, walnuts, macadamia, and pine nuts, along with sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds can be enjoyed on their own or creatively incorporated into your diet. Consider adding them to muffins, casseroles, cookies, and breads. They’re also a welcome topping on yogurt, cereal, salads, roasted vegetables, and even ice cream. And, of course, nut butters are a great spread on toast, crackers, and fruit slices as well as used as a dip or as an add-in for smoothies and milkshakes.

Cheeses:

Both hard and soft cheese are great sources of protein. Enjoy them on crackers or add them to the menu by grating or crumbling them on salads, pasta, soup, vegetable dishes, casseroles, and mashed potatoes. Alternatively, you can melt them on sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers, eggs, and nachos for a tasty, protein-packed lunch.

Legumes:

Legumes include dried beans, peas, lentils, all of which are great to enjoy on their own and easy adds to soups, casseroles, pasta, and salads.

Eggs:

Not just for breakfast, eggs can be enjoyed as part of a snack or as a featured element in a main dish. From quiches and frittatas to a hard-boiled sandwich filling or salad topping, eggs are easy on the stomach and full of much-needed protein. Note: while undergoing chemo, you want to avoid foods made with raw eggs including Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, and freshly made Caesar dressing as well as any dish that features runny yolks. 

Dairy:

Milk, yogurt, ice cream, and frozen yogurt can be enjoyed throughout the day in a variety of forms. From milk in your cereal and yogurt mixed with bananas for breakfast to ice cream enjoyed as a snack and milk folded into mashed potatoes and other root vegetables, dairy adds a richness and important nutrients to everything. 

Meats:

Animal-proteins are all excellent sources of protein. However, it’s critical to make sure they’re fully cooked before consuming. The last thing you want to do is pull your body’s energy away from rebuilding cells to fighting off food poisoning.

For many people undergoing chemo, eating often holds little appeal thanks to nausea and other side effects. But eating well is key to staying strong.

If you’re finding food unappealing, consider having a protein drink like Ensure or Boost. Keep protein shakes and protein-rich snacks handy so that when you are feeling well, you have quick access to much-needed nutrients. You may also find it helpful to know that research has also found that people who eat well are better able to cope with side effects of treatment and may even be able to handle higher doses of certain drugs. 

If you’re struggling to find foods you like or have questions about what you should or shouldn’t eat, contact your care team who can connect you with a nutritionist at SVMC.

 

Dorisanne Wonsor, PA-C, is a physicans assistant at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center in Bennington.

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