What to eat when you have cancer: Q&A


What to eat when you have cancer: Q&A

By Jane Clarke

September 17, 2017


Weight loss, reduced appetite and whether you should give up that daily latte – these are just some of the issues that concern people when they’re living with cancer. Here are a few answers to help. If you have any more questions, please post them in the comments at the end and I’ll get back to you

healthy berries on a market stall

‘Are there any foods I shouldn’t eat when having chemotherapy?’

When you're about to start chemotherapy or any sort of cancer treatment, you can read all sorts of scare stories on the Internet about what you should and shouldn’t eat, and there’s no right or wrong answer. When you’re starting on a treatment schedule, it’s ideal to put a balanced diet structure around you. You want to ensure you’re eating across the different food groups, with carbohydrates, protein, fats and fruits and vegetables. One of the most valuable things you can do is to keep a diary of what you’re eating and drinking and how your body is feeling.

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‘How can I stimulate someone’s appetite?’

Stimulating someone’s appetite is a really important part of caring for them when they're having treatment. But one of the biggest mistakes we make is thinking they have to eat lots because they need to build up their strength. Actually, a big plateful of food can be too much for someone to manage.

Instead, serve a small portion that’s rich in calories, like a ramekin of beef or chicken casserole, a small plate of cheese and biscuits, or pâté and bread. You could serve the bread and cheese with a little bit of olive oil that they can dip the bread into. Or when you’re making soup, add a little cream or crème fraîche or a bit of grated cheese on top.

Another idea is to serve a small, appetising selection of things they used to love eating, while they’re watching television or reading a book. It can be easier to pick them up as little nibbles while distracted, and it’s a good way of getting over that barrier.

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smoked trout pate

‘How should I change my eating habits if I’ve lost a lot of weight?’

It’s important to keep strong and provide yourself with as much energy as possible when you are living with or recovering from cancer. The stomach is actually pretty small and if you eat lots of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, they sit in your stomach and swell with the water around, filling you up. That’s great if you want to lose or maintain weight, but when weight loss is an issue, we may need to tip the notion of ‘healthy eating’ on its head for a bit. In this situation, we want calories – not ‘empty calories’ with no nutritional value, but those from nourishing, enriched dishes.

Look for foods with a source of fat, which can mean adding some olive oil or butter to vegetables, or enjoying them with a Béchamel or cheesy sauce, as with classic cauliflower cheese. Instead of steaming or grilling fish, lightly fry it in a little butter or olive oil. This might be the time to choose white bread, as it doesn’t fill you up as much as wholegrain so you tend to eat more of it. Or have a treat such as carrot cake, which combines calories from sugar and frosting with the goodness of carrots.

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‘Is it safe to have tea and coffee when you have cancer?’

I can’t get going in the morning without a coffee, but I’m often asked whether it’s okay to have a cup when you’re undergoing cancer treatment. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your caffeine fix. The one issue may be that during treatment, some people find their gut becomes very sensitive and coffee or tea, particularly if it’s quite strong, can make it feel more upset. It might be a question of timing your coffee so you have it with food, or maybe having just a couple of cups a day.

There are many different varieties of tea, from black tea to green tea and white tea. Green tea and white tea contain a lot of antioxidants and you may be told by your care team to avoid antioxidant-rich foods, or supplements, when you are having your treatment. That generally doesn’t mean vegetables or fruits, which of course contain amazing antioxidants, but it could mean that you need to watch the amount of white tea or green tea that you’re drinking, so just check in with your care team.

When you’re feeling particularly sick something like a traditional ginger or mint tea can be really soothing for the gut. Just be careful about the strength of the mint tea because I find with some of my patients that while a weak mint tea can be soothing, a cup that’s been strongly brewed can aggravate acidity. If you’re feeling a bit wired from steroids, which can often make you struggle to sleep, a camomile or lemon verbena can be very calming.

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Why not host your own Nourish Afternoon Tea to bring people together and raise awareness of eating difficulties during illness? We’ve lots of information, recipes and a free Nourish Afternoon Tea Toolkit to help. Click here to find out more.

traditional scones and drop scones afternoon tea

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