The Benefits of Proper Nutrition: Dealing with Gastrointestinal Side Effects from Cancer Treatment.

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

When many things seem out of control after a cancer diagnosis, you can take control by GIchoosing to focus on optimal nutrition.  Managing nutrition-related side effects can help improve your mood, attitude and overall wellbeing,

Loss of appetite is a common side effect from cancer treatment.  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 and maintaining a healthy weight are important.  Many times poor appetite is the cause of other underlying side effects and once those are treated, appetite will often return.

Nausea/vomiting: Some types of chemotherapy, abdominal or brain radiation can cause nausea and vomiting. Nausea is sometimes described as an unsettling or queasy feeling in the stomach, indigestion and can be experienced with or without vomiting.

  • An empty stomach may make nausea and vomiting worse, try to eat regular meals and snacks.
  • Eat small frequent meals (5-6 times a day) instead of three large meals, and avoid greasy or spicy foods and food with strong odors.
  • Eat dry foods such as crackers, toast and pretzels that may be easier on your stomach.
  • Drink fluids between meals instead of with meals.
  • Try ginger teas, ginger candies, ginger snaps/cookies or ginger root in soups and stir fries.

Constipation: Constipation can be caused by certain chemotherapies, nausea and pain medications, a change in diet or a decrease in your usual activity level.

  • Be sure to stay hydrated by drinking at least 8-10 8-ounce glasses of fluid each day.
  • Eat foods rich in fiber, such as bran; whole-grain breads, cereal and pastas; fresh fruits and vegetables; and beans and nuts.
  • Increase your activity level, if approved by your healthcare team.

Diarrhea: Diarrhea occurs when you are having frequent, loose, soft or watery bowel movements, and can quickly lead to dehydration.

  • Avoid greasy or fatty food, food high in fiber, raw vegetables and caffeine.
  • Drink a minimum of 8-10 8-ounce glasses of clear fluid a day, such as water, broth, juices, Gatorade or decaffeinated tea.
  • Consume foods rich in potassium, such as fruit juices and nectars, bananas and potatoes (without skin).
  • Eat foods high in pectin and soluble fiber, such as applesauce, baked apples, bananas, rice and oatmeal to help slow down diarrhea.

Heartburn/reflux: Heartburn can be a side effect of chemotherapy.

  • Avoid acidic foods, like tomatoes and citrus, as well as high-fat and spicy foods.
  • Small frequent meals can minimize acid regurgitation and discomfort.
  • Some people need over-the-counter or prescription heartburn medications recommended by their healthcare team.

Join us next week to learn about strategies to combat side effects impacting your ability to chew, swallow and taste titled The Benefits of Proper Nutrition: Dealing with Oral Side Effects from Cancer Treatment.

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.

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