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Nutritional guidance for cancer patients

Publish date: 23/04/2012

Tags: Cancer , Nutrition

Nutritional guidance for cancer patients

Nutritionist Sarah Schenker provides advice on maintaining a good nutritional status when you have been diagnosed with cancer. Recipe suggestions are also included as a guide to the type of well-balanced meals and healthy snacks to aim for.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer of any type, it is important to look after yourself and eat as healthily as you can to maintain a good nutritional status.

If you are generally well, with no loss of appetite and no discernable weight loss, general healthy eating advice is appropriate to help keep your energy levels up and immune system strong.

Avoid faddy diets: unfortunately, there is no diet or special combination of foods that can cure cancer. Instead, aim for a sensible and varied diet.

Follow the five tips below to help boost your nutritional status and keep as well as you can during your treatment.

1. Start the day with a healthy breakfast

Overnight, we use up some of our stored energy and become slightly dehydrated, so make sure you start each day with a good breakfast. This will provide you with plenty of energy for the day ahead.

Some people skip breakfast and get used to feeling tired and lethargic during the morning. Even if you used to be a regular breakfast-skipper, now is the time to change that habit and give your body the energy and nutrients it needs to start the day feeling well and energised.

Try some of the following:

  • A bowl of oat-based cereal with sliced banana and a glass of apple juice.
  • A bowl of Greek yoghurt with a couple of handfuls of mixed berries and a banana and mango smoothie.
  • Wholegrain toast spread with peanut butter and a latte.
  • A bowl of Greek yoghurt with chopped dried apricots, flaked almonds and a drizzle of honey, with a cup of green tea.
  • Wholegrain toast with scrambled egg and hot smoked salmon, with a glass of orange juice.

Recipe suggestions:

Get Up and Go Smoothie
This smoothie contains apple juice, carrot juice, kiwi and strawberries. It will rehydrate you after a long night's sleep and raise your blood sugar level. Kiwis and strawberries have a high glycaemic index (GI), so they release their energy quickly, giving blood sugar levels a boost. Apple and carrot juice have low GIs, so their energy will be released slowly, keeping you going through the morning.
View recipe

Seasonal Fruit Compote
Any mixture of berries, plums, peaches or other seasonal fruit can be used for this compote. It's a useful dish to keep in the fridge to add to plain yoghurt or breakfast cereals, and is a good source of vitamin C, fibre, potassium and folate.
View recipe

2. Keep well hydrated

Drinking plenty of fluids (at least 1.5 litres per day) will ensure you keep well hydrated, which improves your sense of well-being. Being dehydrated, even just a little, can cause headaches, irritability, feelings of tiredness and lethargy, and lack of concentration.

Remember that all fluids (except alcoholic drinks) count towards your fluid intake. Sometimes, people feel they should give up drinks like tea and coffee to become healthier; there is really no need. When drunk in moderation, tea and coffee do not have a dehydrating effect.

A word on alcohol: while excessive drinking is not recommended for anyone, don't feel you must abstain completely. If a small glass of wine helps you to relax in the evenings, that's fine, but exceeding 2-3 units is damaging to the body. It is a good idea to have some alcohol-free days and, if you do drink too much on one occasion, give your body a complete rest for 48 hours before you have another alcoholic drink.

Recipe suggestions:

Greek Salad with Watermelon and Feta
The high water content of watermelon means it can help to rehydrate the body. Watermelon is also a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A and potassium.
View recipe

Golden Beetroot and Blood Red Orange Salad
This salad is a refreshing and colourful combination of oranges, apples and golden beets. Beets are a good source of B vitamins, iron and zinc, and also provide vitamins A and C, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and protein.
View recipe

3. Base your meals on starchy foods

Foods such as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and breakfast cereals are good sources of starchy carbohydrate that provide the body with slow-release energy, helping to regulate the appetite and keep blood sugar levels stable.

Eating starchy foods will help you avoid the energy dips that you sometimes experience between meals and that have you reaching for a fatty or sugary snack. Choose wholegrain varieties when you can, as they provide plenty of fibre (good for the gut) and important vitamins and minerals.

Recipe suggestions:

Slow Roasted Winter Vegetables
The different types of vegetables in this recipe offer variety in flavours, textures and colours, and provide a range of important nutrients: beta-carotene from sweet potatoes, vitamin C from peppers and fibre from courgettes.
View recipe

Bulgur Wheat with Chickpeas and Feta
As an alternative to rice and pasta, try bulgar wheat. This filling grain has a nice, nutty flavour and is easy to digest. It is a good source of slow-release carbohydrate, providing a steady flow of energy. As a wholegrain, it is high in fibre and other essential vitamins and antioxidants.
View recipe

4. Keep up your intake of fruit and vegetables

Stick to the 5-A-Day target as much as possible. Fruit and vegetables provide valuable vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to boost the immune system and protect cells against damage from free radicals. You may read about the benefits of certain cancer-fighting fruit and vegetables, but remember: variety is the key and no one food is a magic bullet.

Research is beginning to show that it is a varied diet that is important for good health, as combinations of different nutrients and antioxidants seem to work together to help the body stay healthy. All types of fruit and vegetables count, so, as well as fresh fruit, salads and vegetables, try dried or baked fruit, vegetable soups and stews, and juices and smoothies.

If you want to eat more than 5 portions a day, don't overdo it: 7-8 portions a day is fine, but more than this could make the rest of your diet unbalanced.

Recipe suggestions:

Avocado, Grapefruit and Fennel Salad
Pink grapefruit is a rich source of vitamin C, while avocado is rich in healthy mono-unsaturated fats and contains plenty of vitamin E, all of which help boost the immune system.
View recipe

Feta and Pomegranate Couscous
Pomegranates have a tangy flavour that works just as well in savoury as in sweet dishes. They have three times the antioxidant power of red wine and green tea to combat damaging free radicals. The pumpkin seeds and walnuts are good sources of essential fatty acids, including omega 3.
View recipe

5. Have well-balanced meals and a variety of healthy snacks

Use the Food Standard Agency's eatwell plate to help you plan a healthy, well-balanced diet

The eatwell plate shows the proportions and types of foods that you should eat from each food group to ensure a good intake of all the nutrients your body needs. Remember, this balance does not have to be achieved at every meal, but aim to achieve it over time - a day or so.

Plan snacks to complement your meals; for instance, if you have toast with peanut butter and fruit juice for breakfast, choose a snack from the milk or dairy group (such a pot of yoghurt) to cover the four main groups.

Avoid too many foods from the smallest group: food and drinks high in fat and/or sugar. These foods do not provide many vitamins or minerals, and filling yourself up them means you will eat less from the important food groups.

Recipe suggestions:

Cauliflower and Fennel Soup
The greater the variety of fruit and vegetables you eat, the better. Making a soup is a good option, because you can combine familiar flavours with previously untried ones, as in this cauliflower and fennel soup. This soup is easy to prepare and makes a nourishing meal or snack.
View recipe

Salmon and Watercress Salad
This healthy, flavoursome salad is quick and easy to prepare as a light lunch or snack. It provides a range of important nutrients, including protein, omega 3 fats, vitamin E, zinc, fibre and antioxidants.
View recipe

Useful websites

The following websites provide further information on diet and healthy eating for people with cancer:

"Diet, healthy eating and cancer", Cancer Research UK

"Eating well", Macmillan Cancer Support

"Eating well and being active following cancer treatment", World Cancer Research Fund

Please note, these tips are provided for your information and should not be considered a substitute for any advice given to you by your GP or specialist.

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With this you'll get access to further entitlements such as:

  • Treatment of cancer at every stage, even if it recurs or spreads
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