If you’re undergoing treatment for cancer, eating may be the last thing on your mind. Cancer and its treatments can make food less appealing.
But maintaining good nutrition is important, says Salem Zeglin, a specialized oncology dietitian at Tidelands Health Cancer Care Network, our region’s most comprehensive cancer care program and an affiliate of MUSC Health’s Hollings Cancer Center, a National Institutes of Cancer-designated cancer center.
“A healthy diet helps you maintain your energy and gives your body the nutrients it needs,” Zeglin says. “Some people do find it difficult to eat while receiving therapies to fight cancer, but we work with patients to provide tools to help them give their bodies what they need.”
Smaller meals, larger snacks
For example, Zeglin says some people may find it difficult to eat three large meals each day. So, instead of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, Zeglin says a better option for some cancer patients is to eat five or six small meals or hearty snacks per day.
“If a patient experiences side effects such as early satiety, decreased appetite or fatigue, they can sometimes better tolerate small, frequent meals. That way, they don’t feel overwhelmed eating a big portion,” she says.
Zeglin says it’s good for patients to respond to their hunger cues, although that can be problematic for some cancer patients.
“A lot of individuals have a decreasing appetite, and their hunger cues are diminished, so we tell them to schedule their meals. Eating on a schedule allows patients to consume adequate calories throughout the day,” she says.
Setting an alarm as a reminder to eat and drink is a good idea, especially if you’ve lost your appetite completely, Zeglin says.
Try new things
Experimentation is also important for cancer patients who find their sense of taste is different. Some people may have a bitter taste in their mouths. Zeglin says one alternative for those patients is to consider eating sweeter foods to counterbalance that taste. Conversely, if a food tastes too sweet, try diluting it.
“Patients might need to experiment with different foods as well as with different textures and different consistencies. During cancer treatment, patients may need to alter what they’ve done in the past,” she says.
While eating for nutrition is vital, Zeglin says it’s also perfectly OK to simply eat what sounds good from time to time.
“We recommend nourishing your body with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, but if weight loss or sore mouth and throat are an issue, sometimes options such as smoothies and milkshakes are better tolerated,” she says. “These can still be a part of cancer nutrition therapy as they provide increased calories and protein, which can be lacking in a patient’s diet.”
Other tips for cancer patients:
- Eat with others or watch television while eating so you don’t think about your lack of appetite.
- Keep snacks within easy reach during chemotherapy treatments or while resting in bed.
- If foods taste bland, add strong flavors such as pickles, dressings, vinegar, citrus juices and spices, or try marinating meat to enhance its flavor.
- If foods taste metallic or bitter, use plastic cutlery and avoid cooking in cast iron.
- If the smell of food becomes problematic, stay out of the kitchen while food is being prepared, eat room temperature or cold foods, or open a window or turn on a fan to dissipate the odor.
At Tidelands Health, a multidisciplinary team of physicians and experts works collaboratively to customize a care and treatment plan to meet each patient’s needs. Oncology dietitian services are part of the comprehensive care patients receive.
“When patients are referred to our network, they will be assessed for many symptoms such as their risk for malnutrition, lack of appetite and weight loss.,” Zeglin says. “Patients can be referred to us early on or at any other point along their journey.”
“Patients want to ensure their nutrition supports their treatment, and we’re here to help them meet their goals.”