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Proper nutrition is key to maintaining good health — but it is especially critical for people undergoing cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy. Treatment, in general, can take its toll on patients, often causing unpleasant side effects. In the case of radiation therapy, this commonly includes weight loss and dehydration. Because of this, it’s important to keep up with eating a healthy diet to the best of your ability during your treatment. You’ll feel better, have more energy, and recover faster.
How Your Diet Should Change During Radiation Therapy
A healthy diet may look a little different during radiation therapy because of how this treatment affects the body. Radiation therapy is known to cause fatigue which can be made worse by not eating. You might not feel like eating, but it’s still important to do so. A lack of nutrients could lead to malnutrition, leaving you weak, tired, and unable to fight infection or finish cancer treatment. Therefore, for radiation therapy patients, calorie, protein, and fluid needs are higher than usual to keep the body strong.
Protein for Strength
Maintaining muscle, as well as a healthy immune system, is very important during radiation therapy. It’s not uncommon for patients to experience severe weight loss due to having trouble eating, so increasing your protein intake is highly recommended. In addition to building muscle, protein encourages cell growth and repair, improves blood clotting, and boosts the immune system. Protein-rich foods include eggs, nuts or nut butter, lean meats such as fish or poultry, dairy products, and soy.
Healthy Fats for Healing
Your body needs fat to survive, but not all fats are good for you. When choosing foods, opt for foods that include healthy fats, often referred to as unsaturated fats. These can help heal your body by fighting inflammation and repairing and replacing injured tissue. This is essential while undergoing radiation therapy. Healthy fat options include olive oil, nuts, seeds, flax, and avocados.
Carbohydrates for Energy
Carbohydrates (carbs) are a major source of energy for your body. Additionally, they provide the body with fiber that promotes good gut bacteria and various vitamins and minerals that help improve mental and physical health. Keep in mind that some carbs are better for you than others. The best sources can be found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Do your best to choose carbs that have not been processed, as they have little or no nutritional value.
Fluids for Hydration
Becoming dehydrated during radiation treatment is common, so it’s important you increase your fluid intake. Fluids are essential for energy, organ function, healing, and combating fatigue. Water, juices, broths, sports drinks, and popsicles are all great sources of hydration.
Tips For Maintaining a Balanced Diet During Radiation Treatment
The cancer care team at Virginia Oncology Associates (VOA) understands radiation therapy for cancer treatment can make eating a challenge but it’s still important to keep trying. Here are some general tips that may help you better maintain a balanced diet during radiation treatment:
Replace larger meals with smaller meals and snacks every few hours
Choose protein-dense snacks, such as cheese sticks, yogurt cups, or hard-boiled eggs
Incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables as tolerated
Keep travel snacks in your car or bag
Boost your smoothies with protein powder
Add healthy fats and proteins to dishes. For example, add nut butter to hot cereal, avocado slices to soups or sandwiches, or add olive oil to vegetables and salads.
Dine with family or friends to make mealtimes more enjoyable
Avoid lying down immediately after eating
If you have difficulty eating enough calories throughout the day, a member of your VOA cancer care team can provide you with personal nutrition solutions and menu ideas to prevent additional illness and facilitate recovery from your disease. If you’re unable to eat due to nausea, your oncologist may prescribe anti-nausea medications to help provide relief.
Eating a well-balanced diet should provide you with all the minerals and nutrients you need. If this is a struggle, your doctor may recommend a low-dose multivitamin. Because some vitamins and supplements may interact with your treatment, we advise you not to incorporate them into your diet without having a discussion with your oncologist first.
Additional Dietary Tips for Site-Specific Radiation Treatment
Radiation therapy administered to certain areas of the body can create its own specific set of challenges. If you are receiving radiation therapy to the head and neck area or the pelvic region, you may find these additional suggestions helpful.
If you are receiving radiation to the head and neck area
Radiation therapy for head and neck cancers may cause side effects that impact eating. After receiving treatment, you might experience side effects such as dry mouth, sores, nausea, loss of taste or a metallic taste, or difficulty chewing and swallowing. To minimize uncomfortable side effects, consider the following:
Eat soft, bland foods that won’t irritate the mouth
Moisten foods with gravies or sauces
Avoid spicy foods or acidic fruit, such as oranges or grapefruit, that may inflame sores
Use plasticware instead of metal knives, forks, or cans
Suck on popsicles or lozenges to help increase saliva
Rinse your mouth every four to six hours for comfort and to cleanse your palate between meals. (Use an alcohol-free mouthwash or a water and baking soda solution. Your doctor or dentist can help you determine what might work best for you.)
Gargling with warm salt water and sipping on liquids throughout the day can help relieve excessive mucus in your throat. Warm tea with honey may also help. For nausea, consider drinking some warm ginger tea. Add calories by opting for sports or therapeutic nutrition drinks.
If choking or the inability to eat, drink, or swallow becomes a concern, your oncologist may recommend a temporary feeding tube.
If you are receiving radiation to the pelvic region
Radiation therapy in the pelvic region may cause changes in bowel habits or cause bladder inflammation. If this happens, you could experience side effects such as bloating, difficulty urinating, diarrhea or constipation, and rectal irritation or itchiness (proctitis). Your VOA cancer care team can give you specific recommendations to minimize complications after treatment for colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, or gynecologic cancer.
Minimize bloating and gas:
Eat slowly and chew food well
Avoid chewing gum and drinking carbonated drinks
Limit gas-producing foods, such as brussels sprouts, cabbage, beans, and some artificial sweeteners, like sorbitol, aspartame, and stevia
Manage bladder issues:
Drink plenty of liquids
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods
Avoid tobacco products
If suffering from frequent, watery bowel movements:
Replenish fluids throughout the day
Cut out caffeine and alcohol
Eat more soluble fiber, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, oats, apples without skins, and bananas
Speak with your physician if the diarrhea does not improve
If suffering from constipation:
Drink eight to 10 cups of liquids a day
Establish regularity by eating and trying to have a bowel movement on a schedule
Select high-fiber foods, such as bran cereals, popcorn, and fruits and vegetables with skins on
Incorporate light exercise to help improve regularity
Contact your doctor if you are unable to have a bowel movement for three or more days, and use laxatives only as recommended by a doctor
Minimize proctitis (inflammation of the rectum):
Avoid spicy, acidic, and fatty foods during bouts of diarrhea
Consider switching to alternative forms of milk if lactose intolerance may be a factor
Nutrition Counseling for Cancer Patients Receiving Radiation Therapy at Virginia Oncology Associates