Eating Well During Cancer Treatment

A nutritious diet is always vital for your body to work at its best. Good nutrition is even more important for people with cancer. Why?

What Kinds of Food Do I Need?

A good rule to follow is to eat a variety of different foods every day. No one food or group of foods contains all of the nutrients you need. A diet to keep your body strong will include daily servings from these food groups:

Fruits and Vegetables: Raw or cooked vegetables, fruits, and fruit juices provide certain vitamins (such as A and C) and minerals the body needs.

Protein Foods: Protein helps your body heal itself and fight infection. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese give you protein as well as many vitamins and minerals.

Grains: Grains, such as bread, pasta, rice, and cereals, provide a variety of carbohydrates and B vitamins. Carbohydrates provide a good source of energy, which the body needs to function well.

Dairy Foods: Milk and other dairy products provide protein and many vitamins and are the best source of calcium.

To help Americans learn how to choose a healthy diet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designed a Food Guide Pyramid. The Food Guide Pyramid gives the amounts and types of foods most Americans should try to eat each day. It emphasizes five food groups- Bread, Fruit, Vegetable, Milk, and Meat-and focuses on reducing the amount of fat in the diet. Figure 1: "Eat a Variety of Foods Each Day," gives more details about the guidelines in the Pyramid. The sample menu shows one way you can follow the Food Pyramid guidelines.

Keep in mind that the Food Pyramid may not meet the requirements of individuals with special diet needs, such as cancer patients. In fact, the best foods for you right now may be very different from those in the Food Pyramid, depending on the type of treatment you are receiving or how you feel. You probably will need more calories and more high-protein foods, such as meats and dairy products. You may need to cut back on high-fiber foods for a while, such as vegetables, fruits, cereals, and whole grains, if your treatment causes diarrhea. Your doctor, nurse, or registered dietitian also may suggest that you add commercial nutrition supplements to your diet to make sure you get enough protein, calories, and other nutrients during treatment. (See the section, "Commercial Products To Improve Nutrition.")

Pay attention to your body. If nausea makes certain foods unappealing, then eat more of the foods you find easier to handle. For example, if you get nauseous from eating fruits but can eat protein foods, eat more protein foods and less fruit.

Sometimes changing the form of a food will make it more appetizing and help you eat better. You might try mixing canned fruit into a milkshake if eating whole, fresh fruits is a problem.

It is important to keep trying new things. Anything you eat will be a plus in getting enough calories to maintain your weight. This information describes some of the special diets that cancer patients may need to follow. (See "Special Diets for Special Needs.") It also gives ideas and recipes that worked for other cancer patients when they had to change their diet or when they didn't feel like eating.

Your doctor, nurse, and registered dietitian will let you know which diet is best for you. Be sure to talk with them if you have any questions.

Can Good Nutrition Treat Cancer?

Doctors know that patients who eat well during cancer treatment are better able to cope with side effects. However, there is no evidence that any kind of diet or food can either cure cancer or stop it from coming back. In fact, some diets may be harmful, especially those that don't include a variety of foods. There is also no evidence that dietary supplements, such as vitamin or mineral pills, can cure cancer or stop it from coming back.

The NCI strongly urges you to eat nutritious foods and follow the treatment program prescribed by a doctor who uses accepted and proven methods or treatments. People who depend upon unconventional treatments may lose valuable treatment time and reduce their chances of controlling cancer and getting well.

The NCI also recommends that you ask your doctor, nurse, or registered dietitian before taking any vitamins or mineral supplements. Too much of some vitamins or minerals can be just as dangerous as too little. Large doses of some vitamins may even stop your cancer treatment from working the way it should. To avoid problems, don't take these products on your own. Follow your doctor's directions for safe results.

[Next Section] [Previous Section] [Return to Contents]