Can we not all agree that each one of us has, at some point or another, sought comfort in the food that we eat? Be it our primary need for nutrition or our craving for something that delights our tongue; food has always been a resort for us. Often associated with feelings and emotions, the psychology of food builds upon our memories and brings back a sense of comfort and longing to our everyday life. And even more so when we struggle through hardship and stress: our instinct directs us towards food that we associate with happier times.
In a similar way, individuals struggling through cancer treatment seek comfort in the food that they eat, even though chemotherapy and other conventional treatments and alternative care render most of what they consume as tasteless. The battle is much fiercer on their end: and the key lies in finding the right balance between food that fulfills their nutritional needs in battling cancer symptoms and food that provides them with comfort and joy through palliative care.
How cancer treatment affects your food habits?
When undergoing integrative cancer treatment, the main side effects often include difficulty in eating, low appetite, dry mouth, nausea, taste changes, digestive problems, or trouble in chewing and swallowing normal food. Any form of cancer treatment, be it chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy, or any of the alternative treatments, can directly affect an individual's sense of taste. Although it might differ from person to person, the most common changes range from bitterness and metallic tastes in one's mouth to tastelessness.
Fasyal Haroun, M.D., assistant professor in hematology and oncology at George Washington University, observed that patients unable to maintain a nutrient-rich diet often struggle to make a full recovery. Listed below are some points about nutrition counseling for cancer:
- Avoid foods with strong odor: The key to this lies in serving chilled food, and it also helps in numbing down the tongue when undergoing changes in taste. Citrus flavors added to food also help mask strong and unpleasant odors.
- Fight the unpleasant metallic taste by swapping out silverware: Chemotherapy and radiotherapy often bring about taste changes that leave a metallic flavor in your mouth, which can adversely affect your appetite. The simplest way to curb this is to swap out silverware for plastic or ceramic utensils.
- To prevent pain from cuts and sores in the mouth, refrain from consuming citrus foods: The acidic element present in citrus fruits can potentially cause more pain, and to avoid this, one can choose to opt for frozen treats which numb your taste buds and help to deal with sores.
- Opting for high-calorie snacks if having an entire meal turns out too cumbersome: Chemotherapy-induced loss in appetite can be avoided by switching out heavy meals for periodic nutrient-rich high-calorie snacks. If swallowing is a cause for trouble, chilled smoothies and frozen bananas can act as excellent supplements for solid food.
What are the nutritional needs of a person undergoing cancer treatment?
- Vitamin and mineral supplements: A healthy balanced diet is often considered sufficient, but in case the diet is lacking, having a low dose multivitamin and mineral supplement may help. It is advisable to consult an oncologist for more details on integrative oncology nutrition.
- Calories and protein: Eating protein-rich food like chicken, fish, pork, beef, lamb, eggs, milk, cheese, can work wonders. If these turn out to be too intimidating, one can opt for supplementary meals which are exclusively not low-fat and low-calorie as the body needs to stock up on calorie-rich food while undergoing cancer treatment.
- Always nourish yourself with a substantial amount of fluids: It is essential to keep up a healthy intake of fluids throughout the entire process as the requirements of the body change with the cancer treatment.
Foods to opt for during cancer treatment while managing side effects
Cancer treatment often induces a variety of unpleasant symptoms in patients, which makes the recovery process far more challenging. The most common symptoms, as well as the tips to overcome them, are as follows.
- Constipation: It can be caused by a variety of things ranging from one's lifestyle to chemotherapy and even from pain medication. As the lack of fiber-rich food, irregular eating habits, and inadequate fluid intake becomes a primary cause, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts may help pass stool more frequently. Water intake must be supervised, and mealtime should be regulated.
- Diarrhea: This would mean that most of the nutrients and minerals are not getting absorbed by our body, and to supplement the loss of minerals, one must increase the intake of fluids, fruit juices, high-calorie drinks, smoothies, etc. Consulting an oncologist is advisable, in case the symptoms continue over a long period of time.
- Dry and sore mouth: One of the most common symptoms of chemotherapy is a dry and sore mouth, which can be painful. Therefore, one must opt for moist food with a soft texture that is easy to swallow. Chilled and frozen treats are of great help in numbing the lining of the mouth as it makes eating significantly painless.
It is really difficult to maintain a healthy diet as cancer patients go through many side effects during treatments such as altered taste, nausea and vomiting. It is natural to crave certain foods at times like this which might make them happy.
You have to be very gentle with yourself, you don't need to punish yourself by not having the food you crave for! Be a little creative in your food intake. You can make your unhealthy comfort food healthy by adding foods like avocados, dates, peanut butter dark chocolate, mixed nuts etc. Consult an Onco Nutritionist for guidance and help during such tough times.