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Healthy holiday eating tips for cancer patients

Cancer patients can still enjoy some of their holiday favorites.
Cancer patients don't have to sacrifice traditional foods during the holidays. They can still look forward to all their holiday favorites—with some modifications.

’Tis the season for delicious and decadent foods. But if you or a loved one is undergoing cancer treatment, it’s important to try to maintain healthy eating habits as you socialize this holiday season. Nutritious foods not only support the immune system, eating well before, during and after cancer treatment may help you feel better, stay stronger, maintain a healthy weight and fight infection.

That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice all your favorite traditional foods during the holidays. You can still look forward to mouth-watering roast turkey and stuffing, creamy green bean casserole and even frosted sugar cookies—with some modifications. You’ll also want to strike a balance between party foods, which tend to be high in salt, fat and carbs, and healthier fare such as lean proteins, fruits and vegetables.

In this article, we’ll offer tips on how cancer patients may enjoy holiday meals and gatherings during and after treatments. Topics include:

If you want to learn more about the nutritional support and other integrative care services we offer patients at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), or if you’re interested in a second opinion on your cancer diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

Having your cookies and eating them, too

How can cancer patients navigate family get-togethers, football feasts, office and neighborhood parties and even the beloved cookie exchange?

“Try to focus on nourishing your body with healthy foods during the holidays, while balancing the comfort that may come from enjoying some of your holiday favorites with family and friends,” says Carolyn Lammersfeld, Vice President of Integrative Care at CTCA®.

“A good way to balance what you eat is to follow the 80-20 rule, where 80 percent of the foods and beverages you consume are nutritious and 20 percent are a little more indulgent,” she says. “Of course, 85-15 or 90-10 is even healthier, but may not be realistic for everyone.”

Cancer patients can still enjoy some of their holiday favorites.

Healthy holiday eating tips

To make it easier for you to choose healthy food options when heading out to holiday gatherings, Lammersfeld offers these nutrition tips, recipe modifications and strategies for handling treatment side effects that may affect your appetite:

  • Try not to go to holiday events hungry. Before you go, eat something small, such as fresh fruit or vegetable sticks with nut butter or yogurt. This strategy helps maintain blood sugar levels and curb cravings for sugary foods.
  • Substitute fruit or fruit cobblers for desserts in place of sweets that are high in sugar and low in nutrients.
  • Use a salad plate, to encourage smaller portions. Fill most of your plate with plant-based foods.
  • Be picky and only take foods you feel like eating.
  • Fill up on high-fiber foods first, such as nuts, salads and whole grains.
  • Practice mindful eating, such as waiting 20 minutes before getting seconds.
  • Mingle to reduce unconscious snacking.
  • Sip on water, which will keep you hydrated and feeling full, so you don’t overindulge.
  • Add activities to your schedule to help offset the extra calories you take in. The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get 150-300 minutes of moderate activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity each week.

Healthy modifications for holiday recipes

Lammersfeld also suggests the simple ingredient substitutions below for traditional high-fat recipes, including dips, bakery treats and cheeses. With just a few changes, you may enjoy healthier versions of your favorite foods without skimping on flavor.

  • Use two egg whites in place of one egg to reduce fat and cholesterol without losing the taste.
  • Use low-sodium, fat-free (or reduced-fat) chicken broth in mashed potatoes to add flavor and cut back on butter or margarine.
  • Substitute applesauce for oil, margarine or butter in muffins and breads.
  • Use fat-free (or reduced-fat) yogurt for dips, sauces and pie toppings.
  • Try sliced almonds for a crunchy topping, instead of fried onion rings.
  • Use reduced-fat or low-fat cheeses, such as mozzarella, for salads and casseroles.
  • Substitute vegetables or fruit for dipping, in place of crackers and chips.

You may also want to try a few holiday recipe makeovers suggested by our Cancer Fighters® community. For a new taste-twist on a festive favorite, consider oven-roasted turkey breast or grilled chicken with fresh herbs. For a fresh side dish, swap out mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower with light sour cream to cut calories. Also consider our recipes for black bean salad and sautéed eggplant for nutritious additions to holiday meals. For dessert, enjoy all the flavor and 75 percent less sugar with this recipe for not your traditional pecan pie.

Holiday drinking considerations

Lammersfeld strongly discourages drinking alcohol during cancer treatment, and patients should talk with their doctors about any alcohol consumption.

“Alcoholic drinks may interact with some cancer treatments and could potentially increase the risk of side effects,” she says. “Even drinking very small amounts may have a big impact.”

One important side effect of drinking alcohol is the risk of becoming dehydrated. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes the body to remove fluids from the blood at a much faster rate than non-alcoholic beverages. If you don’t drink enough water with alcohol, you may become dehydrated quickly.

Even mild dehydration may cause symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, dry skin and constipation. If you become dehydrated, your cancer treatment may have to be delayed or your treatment dose adjusted, and patients with severe dehydration may have to be hospitalized. Untreated severe dehydration may even be life-threatening.

Instead of drinking alcoholic beverages at holiday gatherings, Lammersfeld recommends alcohol-free mocktails (made with fruit juices), sparkling water and caffeine-free herbal or spiced teas.

Cancer patients can still enjoy some of their holiday favorites.

Handling treatment side effects

Food tends to be at the center of holiday celebrations, which may be challenging for some patients in cancer treatment. Those undergoing chemotherapy, for example, may be struggling with a lack of appetite. Others may be experiencing nausea, digestive issues, taste changes, mouth sores (mucositis) or other treatment side effects that may make it difficult to eat and digest many traditional holiday foods.

If you’re feeling well enough to spend time with loved ones, Lammersfeld offers ideas you and your holiday hosts may use to adapt to some common side effects and make menu items healthier or more palatable for those in treatment. Of course, these are general suggestions, so make sure to follow any modified diet that your care team has recommended for you based on your type of cancer and/or treatment.

Loss of appetite

  • Make yourself a small plate with your favorite appetizers so you can nibble a little on the foods you love.
  • Support your energy and help prevent weight loss by eating spreads and dips like hummus, nut butters and avocado or guacamole.

Nausea

  • Stick with blander foods such as bread, potatoes, noodles, crackers, soups, vegetables and soft, tender meats that are not heavily sauced or seasoned.
  • Ask your host to use olive or canola oil instead of butter or margarine.
  • Ginger may help ease a queasy stomach, so consider bringing your own ginger tea, gum, chews or cookies.

Diarrhea

  • Avoid caffeine, spicy foods and fatty, greasy or fried foods.
  • Avoid foods with insoluble fiber. While this type of fiber promotes regularity, it may make diarrhea worse. Insoluble fiber is found in most raw vegetables and some whole grains, including whole wheat.
  • Choose foods with soluble fiber, including barley, oats, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, bananas, strawberries, beans, lentils and green beans, which are easier to digest.
  • Stay well-hydrated by sipping on fluids between meals. Choose a sports drink or electrolyte beverage to help keep you hydrated and your electrolytes balanced.

Sense of taste

  • Before eating, try rinsing your mouth with water or a rinse made with water, baking soda and salt to help clear your palate.
  • If you struggle with a metallic taste, eat with plastic utensils instead of silverware. And ask your host to cook foods in glass or ceramic pots and pans.
  • Bring your favorite sauce and/or beverage to the party, so you can eat or wash down food with something you know you’ll enjoy.

Mouth sores

  • Avoid citrus sauces and highly acidic foods like oranges, tomatoes. lemons or limes and spicy foods, since they may cause burning.
  • Try soft foods and cooled-down soups that don’t require a lot of chewing.
  • Keep your mouth moist, and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Try sucking on frozen fruits like grapes, melon, peach slices or ice chips, and use a lip moisturizer with vitamin E, which may help with healing.
  • Bring a nutritional shake with you so if you can’t eat or tolerate a lot of the foods available at your holiday meal, you’re still able to get the calories and protein you need. 
  • Talk to your medical oncologist about specialized mouthwashes that may ease the pain and help you heal.

It’s important to note that cancer patients may have weakened immune systems, which may make them more susceptible to foodborne illness. Since harmful bacteria multiply rapidly, don’t eat foods that haven’t been refrigerated below 40°F or that sat at room temperature for longer than two hours.

If you want to learn more about the nutritional support and other integrative care services we offer patients at CTCA®, or if you’re interested in a second opinion on your cancer diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.