The Benefits of Nutrition During Cancer Treatment: Prevent Fatigue and Improve Your Immunity

by Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN and Angela Hummel, MS, RDN, CSO, LDN

nutrition foodCancer-related fatigue is the most common side effect from cancer treatment and many people expect it and don’t think that there is anything that can be done to improve it.  A healthy diet consists primarily of plant-based food along with lean sources of protein can improve cancer-related fatigue. The proper balance of proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats helps prevent swings in blood sugar, hormones and energy levels.  In addition, a well-balanced diet can give you the nutrients needed to fight off infections and the fuel to repair damage done to healthy cells during treatment.

Here are some helpful suggestions on which to base your nutritional intake:

  • Eat frequent but small meals and snacks spread throughout the day.
  • Seek counseling from a registered dietitian (RD) who is a certified specialist in oncology nutrition. Dietitians can recommend foods, beverages, meal plans and supplements to improve your nutrition before, during and after cancer treatment. They can tailor this information to your individual needs, treatments and side effects.
  • Get information from sources that rely on sound, scientific evidence.

Here are specific tips to improve fatigue and boost immunity:

Fatigue: This common side effect is usually described as feeling very weak, tired or having a lack of energy.

  • Choose foods high in protein and calories, which provide lots of energy but avoid sugar-based snacks that just provide a quick pick me up and end with worsening fatigue.
  • Make sure to stay as hydrated as possible and try to incorporate some exercise into your day.
  • Avoid long naps during the day.  Strive for 20-30 minute naps a few times throughout the day.
  • Try nutritional supplements or liquid-meal replacements if recommended by your physician and health-care team.

Maintaining adequate fluid intake: Many people are required to drink at least ten 8-ounce glasses of fluid daily and urinate frequently during the first 24 hours after treatment to help flush the chemotherapy out of the kidneys. Some people at high risk for dehydration may actually be sent home with intravenous hydration.

  • Sources of fluids include water, decaffeinated tea, juice, broth, fruit ices, ice pops and gelatin.
  • Keep liquid in sight.  The more often you see a beverage the more likely you are to drink.
  • Measure how much you are drinking.  Start with a large pitcher of cold water in the refrigerator and plan to drink it by the end of the day.  Throughout the day you can measure your progress.

Loss of appetite: You may eat less than usual, not feel hungry at all, or feel full after eating only a small amount. Although you may not feel like eating, getting adequate nutrition will improve fatigue and boost your immune system.

  • Take advantage of the times when your appetite is best and try to consume small frequent meals and snacks throughout the day.
  • Eat in enjoyable surroundings and make meals look less overwhelming by placing them on smaller plates rather than larger plates.
  • Try new, exciting recipes and make sure your meals look appealing.
  • Talk with your healthcare team.  If you are experiencing other side effects, they may be diminishing your appetite.

Immunity: Many cancer treatments can decrease your immune system by inhibiting neutrophil production.

  • Strive to eat adequate amounts of lean proteins.  Add low-fat dairy products, nuts or nut butters, eggs, beans, lentils, fish and lean meats to each meal and snack.
  • Eat small frequent meals and strive to eat enough calories to maintain your weight.

Come back next week to read about The Benefits of Proper Nutrition: Dealing with Gastrointestinal Side Effects from Cancer Treatment.

Reference: Oncology Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  Lesser M, Ledesma N, Bergerson S, Truillo E. Oncology Nutrition for Clinical Practice.  Oncology Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: 2013.