The importance of sound nutrition after a cancer diagnosis

Dietitian, Berna Harmse, educates us on nutritional status and the outcome of cancer, and offers tips for nausea.

Being diagnosed with cancer is a devastating event, and most people living with cancer, experience the day they get the news as a life-changing moment. Even after working in the field of oncology nutrition for 18 years, seeing a newly diagnosed person is always a humbling experience. After the news has settled in, and treatment plans have been laid out, the day-to-day management of your emotional and physical well-being is of utmost importance.

The effects of cancer and its treatment can cause increased nutritional requirements and a reduced food intake. Current research data strongly imply a relationship between nutritional status and the outcome of cancer.

Nutritional status and the outcome of cancer

Poor food intake combined with increased nutrient requirements lead to muscle wasting and poor general health. Factors that contribute to a loss in appetite in people living with cancer, include early satiety and nausea, fatigue, pain, fever, psychological stress, and changes in taste or smell.

There are many ways of improving your nutritional status as a cancer patient. The following guidelines are general guidelines to help get you started with healthy eating habits. If you have any difficulty in following the guidelines, please contact a dietitian to give you information that is suited to your personal needs.

All methods of treating cancer are powerful. Each person reacts differently, but only about one third of patients receiving active cancer treatment suffer side effects and side effects usually go away after treatment.

Guidelines to improve nutritional status

When suffering from low appetite, a nutritional supplementation shake balanced in carbohydrates, protein and fat can be used as a supplement to your diet. Remember that with everything in life moderation is the key. Don’t overdo anything, especially if you are considering diet supplementation in pill or potion form. Always contact your healthcare provider before embarking on something new

  1. Try to have at least three meals a day.
  2. Aim to drink six to eight glasses of fluid per day, especially when you are receiving chemotherapy.
  3. Restrict your total fat intake, especially saturated and trans fatty acids (animal fats, coconut, hard margarine, cake, pastries). Include plant fats in your diet (use canola/olive oil instead of sunflower oil, spread avocado and peanut butter on bread instead of margarine).
  4. Include fish (three times a week) and chicken more often than red meat. Oily fish, for example, pilchards, salmon and sardines are high in omega 3 fatty acids; try to have them regularly. Limit the use of processed meats (polony, salami, ham, bacon, sausage).
  5. Increase your fibre intake by using whole-wheat bread instead of white bread; use unrefined cereals (oats, oat bran, All Bran); eat a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit; use pulses (peas, lentils, beans).

Choose at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. One should be rich in vitamin C (tomato, cabbage family, citrus fruit and guavas) and the other a dark green or deep yellow vegetable. Keep it colourful.

Feeling nauseous?

  • Eat and drink little and often, if you can.
  • Have something dry like a plain biscuit first thing in the morning.
  • Avoid greasy or spicy food which may upset your stomach.
  • You may prefer to try cold foods and drinks, such as sandwiches, salads with cold meat, boiled egg or cheese, as well as cold puddings like chocolate mousse and yoghurt.
  • Salty foods may also help: plain salted chips, Marmite, soup and salted crackers.
  • Ginger-containing products can be helpful, such as ginger biscuits, ginger ale or ginger tea.
  • Try to keep away from cooking smells. If possible, try to get help with preparing meals.
  • Foods such as ice lollies (try freezing yoghurt or meal replacement shakes to use as snacks) and fruit juice is refreshing and may be easier to digest.
  • Drinking through a straw may help.
  • Have plenty of fresh air in your house.
  • Wear loose clothing.
  • If possible, a walk before meals may help you to relax before eating and help stimulate your appetite.
  • Try not to lie down for at least two hours after eating.
Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian. She holds a MSc in Dietetics, and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.

MEET THE EXPERT – Berna Harmse

Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian in Cape Town. She holds a MSc in Dietetics and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.

This article is sponsored by LIFEGAIN®️. The content and opinions expressed are entirely the medical expert’s own work and not influenced by LIFEGAIN®️ in any way.

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