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Diet & Nutrition for Cancer Survivors

Table of Contents

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Essentials of a Healthy Lifestyle After Cancer

Why Is Nutrition Important for Cancer Survivors?

People often finish cancer treatment and ask themselves the question "Now what?" After many months of different treatments and appointments it is time to take charge of the next phase of your journey. You may also feel different now that you have more time to focus on your well-being. While exciting, this can also cause a mix of emotions. The good news is nutrition can help you take control of your health. Good nutrition is an important part of your care beyond cancer treatment.

Nutrition helps with:

  • Recovery and healing 
  • Regaining strength and weight 
  • Managing ongoing side effects 
  • Reducing risk of a future cancer diagnosis and keeping you healthy 
  • Maintaining a healthy weight 
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Nutrition Tips From an Expert

Oncology nutritionist Rachel Beller answers questions and gives tips on managing food and meals to help us eat well and feel well.

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Eating healthy after cancer treatment does not have to be overwhelming. You can start by making small changes. As you build small changes in how you eat into your routine, they will become part of your lifestyle. One useful starting point is to learn and follow nutrition guidelines. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has created simple, clear recommendations for cancer prevention. These recommendations are based on what scientific research has shown us about how nutrition and a healthy lifestyle can help prevent cancer and cancer recurrence.

  1. Keep your weight within a healthy range. Avoid weight gain in adult life. A good guide is to keep your weight within a healthy range (a body mass index, or BMI, between 18.5 and 25). Calculate your body mass index. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things that you can do. Twelve cancers studied by AICR are linked to having weight above normal levels and obesity. Too much body weight typically indicates a higher amount of body fat. Higher amounts of body fat can create a more cancer-friendly environment. It can release chemicals that can make cancer cells grow more easily.
  2. Be physically active in your everyday life. Walk more and sit less. It is important to include more movement in your daily routine. It is recommended that you do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, per week. Even simple exercises like walking, gardening, yoga, or housework can help you achieve your goals. Exercise helps you manage weight and reduces hormone levels that may promote cancer growth. Get more details about exercise and wellness.
  3. Eat a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans. Plant foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans have many healthy ingredients that can help prevent cancer. They are rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. These foods are also naturally low in calories to help you maintain a healthy weight. It is helpful to eat a variety of colorful plant foods. Nuts and seeds are also part of a healthy plant-filled diet. 
  4. Limit fast foods and other processed foods high in fat, starches, or sugars. Limiting these foods helps control calorie intake and maintain a healthy weight. These processed foods are typically high in calories. Eating too many of these foods can lead to weight gain, becoming overweight or obese.
  5. Limit red meats and avoid processed meats. Red meats include beef, pork, and lamb. It is recommended you eat no more than 12 to 18 ounces per week for the prevention of colon cancer. Processed meats include ham, sausage, bacon, salami, and hot dogs. It is best to avoid these since even small amounts can increase cancer risk.
  6. Limit sugar-sweetened drinks. Drink mostly water and unsweetened drinks. Sugar-sweetened drinks are not healthy and usually provide unneeded calories without added nutrition. Drinking too many unneeded calories from sugar-sweetened beverages can cause weight gain.
  7. Limit alcohol. For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol. Alcohol in any form — beer, wine, or liquor has been linked to 6 different cancers. Those who choose to consume alcohol should limit these beverages to no more than 1 drink per day for a woman and 2 drinks per day for a man.
  8. Do not use supplements for cancer prevention. A healthy diet rich in colorful fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and lean protein is the best way to get nutrition. If you think that you are unable to meet your nutritional needs with diet alone, talk with your healthcare team before trying any new over-the-counter supplements.

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A Plan for Better Health

Create a Healthy Lifestyle Plan

Being a cancer survivor can be overwhelming because for the first time in a long time, you can take charge of your health. It is time for you to take back control. A healthy lifestyle that includes nutritious foods and physical activity is a great way to take control of your health. Work with your health care team to make a plan that is right for you.

Start with small changes and set a goal to keep yourself on track. A good rule of thumb to remember is to make your goals S.M.A.R.T.

  • S  Set SPECIFIC goals because general goals are much harder to achieve. For example, instead of “I will go to the gym” try “I will go to the gym 2 days during the week and 1 day on the weekend.”
  • M  Set MEASURABLE goals since goals are easier to work on when you have something to work toward. Instead of saying “I will eat more fruits and vegetables” try “I will eat 5 different fruits and vegetables each day.”
  • A  Set ATTAINABLE goals that make sense for you and your current lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to be bold and try something new. For example, “try one new recipe each week” might be an attainable goal for you since you have the energy and enjoy cooking. If you don’t like to cook, try a new smoothie instead. Smoothies can be made easily in a blender. Try our banana melon smoothie recipe.
  • R  Set REALISTIC goals that are doable for you at this stage in your cancer journey. If you’ve just completed treatment and are still dealing with some ongoing side effects like fatigue, cooking a healthy dinner from scratch every night might not be a realistic goal. Instead make one recipe, like marinated grilled chicken breast, that can be repurposed in meals throughout the week.
  • T  Set TIMELY goals that have a time frame to help you stay on track. For example, for those who often skip meals, it might be helpful to set certain times of the day to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eating regular meals will help you avoid excess hunger and overeating.

Use the following checklist to set your own goals and apply what you’ve learned. Follow up with your healthcare team and registered dietitian regularly to help you meet your goals.



Manage Long-term Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatment may cause eating problems that continue after treatment is complete. Side effects like being too tired or not wanting to eat are normal and often pass with time. The good news is that a healthy diet can help to manage these side effects. Here are some tips to help with common eating problems that can continue after cancer treatment.


Cancer Cachexia

While many people have never heard of the term cancer cachexia, it is estimated that the syndrome occurs in 50% to 80% of all patients with cancer. The major symptoms of cancer cachexia include extreme weight loss, weakness, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

Changes in Taste and Smell

Foods may still taste or smell different after treatment. It helps to try different foods and find what you like.

If everything tastes bland or has no taste:

  • Add stronger flavors, spices, or seasonings to foods.
  • If you don’t have mouth or throat sores, add pickles, sauces, dressings, vinegar, or citrus juice for flavor.
  • Suck on sugar-free tart candies before or after a meal.
  • Try cleaning your mouth with a homemade baking soda rinse (To make this rinse: 4 cups water, 1 tsp baking soda, ½ tsp salt. Swish and spit; DO NOT SWALLOW. Use a little each day or before meals.)

If foods taste metallic or bitter:

  • Use plastic utensils (not silverware). Avoid cooking in iron skillets.
  • If red meat tastes metallic or bitter, choose fish, chicken, or beans.
  • Add sweeteners such as honey or pure maple syrup to foods.

If the smell of food makes you not want to eat

  • Avoid being in the kitchen when food is being made.
  • Choose cold or room-temperature foods instead of hot foods (hot foods smell stronger).
  • Light a pleasantly scented candle or oil diffuser to remove odors.
  • Open a window or turn on a fan to reduce smells.
Duration: 2 min

Side Effects of Cancer Treatment: Changing Taste of Food

Caregivers and patients share how the side effects of cancer treatment can change the taste of food.

Fatigue (Feeling Tired)

Ask for help

  • Ask family and friends to help make meals and assist with other daily tasks. Eat healthy foods, avoiding greasy and fried foods.
  • Take on less. Cut back on responsibilities, volunteer commitments, and even favorite hobbies.
  • Notify your healthcare team if onset of fatigue is new and ask them for advice in regards to management.
  • Set realistic goals for what you want to accomplish for the day and ask others to help you.

Stay positive

  • Take it one day at a time and look at each day as a fresh start.
  • Try something you did not do yesterday.
  • If you are getting discouraged by your lack of energy, talk to your healthcare team about what can be done to help.
  • Drink at least 8 glasses of water or fluid a day, unless instructed otherwise by your doctor, and avoid alcohol.
  • Break your day down into smaller chunks of time. Try staying in the moment for 15 minutes at a time.
  • Be mindful of this present moment, leave the past behind, and leave worries of tomorrow for tomorrow. Focus on THIS moment you are living in.

Take breaks

  • Take breaks and rest throughout the day. Do not feel guilty on rest days.
  • Try not to overdo it on higher energy days so you can conserve your energy.
  • Take 5 deep breaths, all the way down through your diaphragm. It helps increase the circulation of oxygen in your body.
  • Take time to meditate. Meditation is proven to benefit cardiovascular and immune health.
  • Aim to sleep at least 8 hours each night. Wake up and go to bed at the same times each day.
  • Take time to rest or take a short nap (no longer than 45 minutes) during the day.
  • Try meditation, guided imagery, prayer, or other strategies to help you relax and decrease stress.

Take advantage of good days

  • Organize your activities around your best times of the day where you have the most energy.
  • Identify the time of day when you have the most energy and use this time for activities that are important to you, like getting work done or paying attention to your children.
  • On days that you have more energy, make soup or stews in bulk to have meals on hand.
  • Be as physically active as you can tolerate, starting slowly and building up to 150 minutes of activity spread over at least 3 days a week.
  • Spend time with your support network doing things you enjoy.

Lack of Appetite (Not Feeling Hungry)

Eat regularly:

  • Eat 5-6 small meals throughout the day instead of 3 big meals.
  • Keep an eating and drinking schedule and set an alarm to remind yourself to eat.

Make mealtime pleasant:

  • Eat with friends or family or watch television while eating to take your mind off of your lack of appetite.
  • Set the table, use nice plates, and have flowers as a centerpiece.

Leave room for foods:

  • Drink fluids in between meals instead of with meals so that you do not fill up on fluids.


Weight Gain

Some patients experience weight gain during or after cancer treatment. It can be related to many factors. These can include appetite changes, decreased activity, hormonal treatment, or steroids. For women, another factor may be whether or not they’ve reached menopause. Managing weight gain is all about choosing a healthier lifestyle by eating healthy foods and exercising within your ability.

Choose healthier foods:

  • Avoid higher calorie foods made with rich creamy sauces, cheese, oils, and fried foods.
  • Fill up more of your plate with lower calorie fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and high-fiber whole grains.
  • Choose baked or broiled fish and lean meats like skinless chicken and turkey breast over high fat meats like hamburgers, steak, pork, and roasts.

Keep a food journal and meal plan:

  • Planning ahead and tracking what you eat can help you to stick with your goals. 
  • Identify parts of your diet that can be improved and set goals to work on them.

Avoid empty calories:

  • Avoid high-calorie sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, and processed foods which offer little or no nutrition benefit.
  • Choose beverages like water, seltzer, and plain tea. Flavor them with your favorite fruits.

Include more physical activity:

  • Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.
  • Find a friend to stay active with you.
  • If you are able, consider including cardio, stretching, and resistance training to help maintain or increase your muscle mass.


Weight Loss

It is important to manage weight loss that occurred during cancer treatment. To promote weight gain and add calories to your diet:

Eat smaller, more frequent meals:

  • Aim to eat 5-6 small meals throughout the day, instead of 3 big meals.
  • Set an alarm or reminder to eat.

Include more physical activity:

  • Aim for a total of 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
  • Talk to your healthcare team about physical therapy if you feel weak or unable to maintain your daily routine.
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Recipes With Nutrient-rich Foods

Think of your body like a nice, clean shirt. You would use the right detergent to clean and protect the shirt from damage. Just like the clean shirt, we should keep our bodies clean with the right kind of food. You can do this by eating plenty of foods rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients, which help clean and protect the cells in your body from damage. An easy way to include phytonutrients in your diet is to look for colorful plant foods like fruits and vegetables.

The following helpful chart includes common foods that provide phytonutrients for cancer prevention. Consider the different colors as a tip to which foods are best. You can aim to “eat the rainbow.” To get started, try the suggested recipes listed in the chart. 


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