PATIENT ALERT: Masks are now optional in our VOA offices. If you are immunocompromised or feeling ill, masking is strongly encouraged. Thank you. CLICK HERE for more details​​​​​​. For more information on the nationwide shortage of two platinum-based anticancer drugs, CLICK HERE.

Nutrition Tips for Cancer Patients

4 min read


Nutrition Tips for Cancer Patients

By: Charity Luiskutty, PA-C

For patients undergoing cancer treatment, good nutrition is essential. Staying well-nourished and hydrated with enough fluids, calories, and nutrients can help reduce treatment delays, boost your immune system, and minimize side effects of cancer and treatment, such as fatigue. The cancer care team at Virginia Oncology Associates (VOA) understands navigating reliable and useful information when it comes to what to eat can be difficult. We want to assist you with some suggestions for maintaining a healthy diet during your cancer treatment journey.

Trendy Diets Are Not For Everyone, Especially During Cancer Treatment

Fad diets, or restrictive diets – such as a diet that cuts out all carbs or all fats – attract most people with promises of losing weight fast with unhealthy habits. While a lot of information is going around encouraging restrictive diets, there is not enough research to know if these diets are safe for people with cancer. What we do know is the most important thing you can do is make sure you get the calories and protein you need to keep your body strong!

Preventing Malnutrition with a Well-Rounded Diet

Without a doubt, staying well-nourished can lead to better outcomes. It is important to consume a well-balanced diet with a variety of healthy foods. To help prevent malnutrition, aim to eat at least 3 meals each day, plus snacks. Be sure to include all food groups, especially protein, with each meal. Drink plenty of clear beverages without caffeine. A good daily goal would be to drink 80-100 ounces, and water is best!

A well-balanced diet includes many plant-based foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) has great recommendations for a “New American Plate,” focusing on 2/3 of each meal being vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans, with 1/3 or less of each meal being lean animal protein. For more information about the “New American Plate” or guidance on how to transition your diet, check out this article from AICR. 

Sources of Proteins

Plant-based proteins are some of the best foods to eat during chemotherapy or other cancer treatments, as they have high levels of vitamins and minerals. Vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds are good sources of proteins that come from plants. Animal-based proteins include lean options like fish or chicken. Try to avoid fattier meats such as beef and pork. 

Healthy Fats

Foods like avocados, olive oil, grapeseed oil, and walnuts have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. This can help reduce inflammation and improve cardiovascular health. Try to use these types of oils when preparing food at home, or add half an avocado with eggs at breakfast.

Healthy Carbs

When considering carbohydrates, choose foods that are not processed. This would include foods like fruits, oats, whole wheat, and bran. Healthy carbs are the soluble fiber that helps maintain your metabolism and good gut bacteria. Try to avoid carbohydrates from sources such as white bread, cookies, cakes, etc., with little or no nutritional value.

Vitamins and Minerals

It’s best to bring in the needed vitamins and minerals through your diet. This helps boost your immune system and reduce inflammation. Foods containing vitamin D, like orange juice, yogurt, and milk, are good. Cancer patients often find smoothies a nutritional way to get these nutrients along with calcium and fruits.

Ways to Manage a Lack of Appetite

Oftentimes, cancer patients experience nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. If you find your appetite is not great or you are experiencing side effects that make it hard to eat foods that are traditionally considered healthy, it’s okay to choose foods that appeal to you, such as a bowl of pasta or a slice of pizza. Just be mindful to include enough protein, such as chicken, if you can, and try not to consume empty calories, such as candy, to prevent malnutrition. We already mentioned smoothies are a good option for bringing in nutrients in a tasty way. Protein shakes are also a wonderful way to supplement your diet, and there are many on the market to choose from. You may also consider adding protein powder from pea protein or soy protein into smoothies and shakes.

Avoid Dietary Supplements

We advise avoiding dietary supplements during cancer treatment. This includes vitamins, minerals, and herbs unless instructed by your physician or unless you have discussed these specifically with your physician. Some supplements may interact with your treatment, leading to a side effect that could otherwise be avoided. 

Eating a well-balanced diet will give you the vitamins and minerals you need through your foods. If you have trouble consuming a balanced diet, add a low-dose multivitamin with no ingredient exceeding 100% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA). 

As every patient is different, it’s best to speak with a dietitian and your oncologist before adding any vitamins or supplements to your diet.

Consume the Right Types of Sugars 

Sugar has been a hot topic, and we get asked if all sugar should be avoided since there are concerns that consuming sugar may increase cancer risk or promote growth. More research is needed to understand this fully, but we do know we cannot starve cancer cells without starving healthy cells too. Because of this, it is best to maintain a well-balanced diet that includes carbohydrates (which turn into sugar) from whole foods like fruit while minimizing foods that have added sugars, such as cookies, cakes, and sodas.

Nutrition Counseling for Cancer Patients at Virginia Oncology Associates

Eating is an important part of your cancer treatment, and whether you are hungry or not, it is necessary to eat regularly to fuel your body to fight cancer and preserve your muscle mass. Virginia Oncology Associates’ cancer team is here to help. Our nutrition counseling experts and dietitians provide you with personalized nutrition solutions and menu ideas to help with the side effects of cancer and treatment.  Please reach out to your VOA team with any questions you may have. In addition, a referral to a VOA dietitian is always available at your request. Our cancer centers are located throughout Virginia and Eastern North Carolina, including Chesapeake, Elizabeth City, Newport News, Norfolk, Suffolk (Harbour View/Obici), Virginia Beach, and Williamsburg.