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Eat well even when you don't feel well

Author: Diana Price

Eating well to ensure good nutrition is critical for cancer patients undergoing treatment. Maintaining wellness and boosting immunity through nutritional support can help ensure that patients complete scheduled treatments and maintain a good quality of life. But for patients who aren’t feeling well, it’s not always easy to eat. Various types of treatment can cause side effects—such as nausea, other gastrointestinal issues, and fatigue—that can decrease appetite and make it difficult for many patients to devote energy to eating well.

Matt Rinehart, RD, CSO, LD, clinical oncology dietitian at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says that there are some helpful strategies that patients can call on if they find that side effects of treatment are interfering with their ability to maintain good nutrition. Here he offers up tips for patients facing two of the most common side effects that interfere with healthy eating: fatigue and nausea.

Fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue, one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment, is an overwhelming sense of tiredness that is not relieved by sleep. Patients experiencing fatigue can find that many daily activities, including preparing food and eating well, can be a challenge.

Rinehart says that because fatigue can have multiple causes, a good first step when working through the issue is to have iron, B12, and folate levels checked to see if anemia is present. If this is the case, food choices can sometimes help. “Focusing on iron-rich foods can be helpful with fatigue in certain situations,” he says. “Some good sources of iron include beef (in moderation), chicken, turkey, fish, beans, lamb, spinach, nuts, and seeds. Iron absorption can be enhanced if a vitamin C source is consumed at the same time.”

Often patients experiencing fatigue may feel they just don’t have the energy to prepare food for themselves. In this case Rinehart encourages patients to make sure they are resting as much as possible and are conserving energy for important tasks. “Let others help you with meals, housework, and errands,” he says. “Preparing food ahead when you do have energy or having food prepared for you can be helpful.” And, he says, be sure to keep on hand plenty of healthy snacks that require little or no preparation (see sidebar “Quick Snacks”) so that easy, nutritious options are available between meals.

Nausea

For patients who experience nausea during treatment, Rinehart says it’s a good idea to stay away from foods with strong smells or seasonings and to avoid very sweet, rich, or greasy foods, which can upset the stomach. “Eating bland foods can be helpful because they are easier on the stomach and don’t tend to cause upset as much if a patient is experiencing smell sensitivities,” he says. Good bland food choices include bananas, avocados, mashed potatoes, rice, toast, applesauce, crackers, noodles, and oatmeal and other cooked cereals.

In addition, Rinehart suggests that patients seek out ginger and peppermint, as both can be helpful in alleviating nausea. “Both are available in tea,” he says, “and there are also crystalized ginger candies, all-natural ginger ales, and ginger syrups.”

Quality and quantity

In general Rinehart encourages patients who are having a difficult time eating during treatment to seek out small, highquality meals made from whole foods that deliver valuable nutrients. Four to six “mini meals” each day can be a better option than several larger, less nutritious meals. “Going too long without food in the stomach can worsen nausea,” he says, “and eating small, frequent meals can help stimulate the appetite naturally.”

Along with small, nutritious meals, Rinehart says, adequate hydration is key. “Being dehydrated can cause nausea and fatigue, so be sure you are taking in enough hydrating fluids throughout the day.”

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