5 Nutrients to Get During Chemo

By Stacey Feintuch

When you’re healthy, getting enough nutrients and calories usually isn’t a problem. But when you’re being treated for cancer, certain side effects can do a number on your appetite. And that can affect your ability to eat right.

Appetite loss can occur during cancer treatment for a variety of reasons:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue or pain
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Change in taste buds (foods taste bitter or metallic)
  • Compromised swallowing that causes mouth sores and throat inflammation

So even if you want to eat, it may be hard to do so.

What nutrients you need
Proper eating can help you feel better, maintain your energy and lower your risk of infection. “Healthy eating habits are important during cancer treatment,” says Dee Sandquist, RD, based in Fairfield, IA. “People who are well-nourished may have better treatment outcomes,” she adds, because their immune systems may be stronger.

Specific nutrient needs vary from person to person. Sandquist says you should think of your “total diet” when it comes to getting nutrition during cancer treatment, including foods and liquids that have certain nutrients. Here’s what she says to include:

Proteins: Protein builds, maintains and repairs the tissues in your body. If you don’t get enough protein, your resistance to infection is decreased. Good protein sources include peanut butter, cashews, fish, poultry, lean red meat, soybeans, eggs and low-fat dairy products. Add finely chopped meat, cheese or hard-boiled eggs to soups and sauces for extra protein. Premade protein-rich drinks are also good if you aren’t up for eating or cooking.

Fats: Fats are broken down and used to store energy and transport essential vitamins through the blood. Aim for healthy fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts and salmon, Sandquist says.

Fiber: Cancer can significantly impact your bowels; chemotherapy and certain medications can cause constipation by slowing the movement of food through your system. That’s where fiber comes into play: Fiber helps move food waste out of your body quickly and helps keep stool soft. High-fiber foods, like whole-grain breads and cereals, fruit and legumes (lentils, dried peas and beans), can also ease constipation.

Carbohydrates: Carbs are the body’s major source of energy. They provide the fuel your body needs for physical activity and proper organ function. Get carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, bread, potatoes, rice and pasta.

Antioxidants: Antioxidants prevent free radicals (which are responsible for tissue damage) from attacking healthy cells. Examples of antioxidants include vitamins A, C and E; selenium and zinc. To up your intake, eat antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, such as apples, berries, onions, plums and eggplant. However, don’t take vitamin supplements without your oncologist’s approval. Certain vitamins in pill form (like vitamin C) interact with some chemotherapy drugs and can interfere with your treatment. Your best bet is to get these nutritional substances from food.

Water: It’s crucial that you drink water during cancer treatment because it helps the body function. And if you don’t drink enough water, or if you’re losing fluids from vomiting or diarrhea, you can become dehydrated. Sandquist recommends at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water (64 ounces) a day. Foods that contain a lot of water, such as apples or lettuce, can also contribute to this amount.

Work with your healthcare provider and a nutritionist to develop a diet that’s right for you.

Published June 2012

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