The importance of nutrition for cancer prevention, management, and survivorship


March is National Nutrition Month – an opportune time to raise awareness about the important role of nutrition for cancer prevention, cancer management, and survivorship.

Nutrition is an often overlooked, but essential, piece of the puzzle when considering a cancer patient’s overall health. This article outlines a few keys to nutritional success that can help lower your risk of cancer. It also discusses how cancer patients can help manage their nutrition during treatment, along with some tips to continue living a healthy life after treatment.

Prevention: Lower your risk for cancer by improving your health now

Adopting a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight is essential to lowering your cancer risk. However, transitioning to a healthy diet can be confusing. Start small and simple and be sure to make changes that are sustainable long term.

Avoid fad diets as they tend to promote unrealistic long-term changes and eliminate certain food groups. Each food group (protein, fats, and carbohydrate) plays an essential role in our body’s day-to-day function. Overconsuming one food group or underconsuming another places stress on the body to find these nutrients elsewhere, leading to weaker muscles and bones, nutrient deficiencies, and other undesirable outcomes. When our bodies improvise because they are missing the vital nutrients they need, they don’t always work as well, which increases the risk for cancer and other chronic diseases.

Using the Mediterranean Diet in conjunction with the MyPlate plan will help guide transition to an overall healthy diet including more fruits and vegetables, whole grains vs. refined grains, healthy fats, more fish and seafood, less red meat (specifically processed red meat), low-fat dairy, and a variety of herbs and spices. The easy-to-use MyPlate plan helps to organize your plate with these foods to promote balanced meals by indicating 25% of the plate lean protein, 25% of the plate whole grains, and 50% of the plate consisting of fruits and vegetables.

Supplements can be tempting; the quick and easy way to get all the vitamins and minerals our body needs – at least that’s what most marketing efforts would have us believe. While maintaining an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals promotes overall health, there is no evidence suggesting supplements can prevent cancer. Most supplements are not regulated by the FDA and may or may not contain what is advertised on their label.

Additionally, some forms of supplements are not as easily absorbed in pill form as they are from foods. Some of the nutrients we need are essential, meaning we must consume them from an outside source since our body does not make them on its own. Therefore, it is important to have these in the most usable form. Aim for a colorful plate at each meal to ensure you are getting a variety of vitamins and minerals in your diet.

Maintaining a healthy weight has been correlated with decreased risk of cancer. Combining exercise with a healthy diet plan can help individuals achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Studies show that higher levels of exercise have been linked to a lower risk of several types of cancer including, but not limited to, breast cancer, colon cancer, esophageal cancer, and stomach cancer. For some practical tips to help you develop an exercise plan, check out our blog on staying active during the COVID pandemic.

Treatment: Proper nutrition for cancer patients helps manage side effects

Side effects from cancer therapies impacting nutrition can vary depending upon the type of cancer and what type of treatment plan a patient is undergoing. Some that are more common include decreased appetite, fatigue, nausea, and taste changes.

However, these can often be managed to promote comfort and continuing to nourish the body. Focusing on easy to prepare, nutrient-dense foods can help when appetite is poor and fatigue levels are increased. Having small frequent meals throughout the day that are seasoned with flavors of umami, acidity, sweet, and spicy is known to help combat nausea and taste changes.

Working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) can make the management of side effects easier by providing evidence-based research and recommendations on an individualized basis. An RDN can help guide patients through individual consults and follow-ups, nutrition support management, and nutrition education specifically designed to improve nutrition for cancer patients. This can help patients avoid unplanned breaks in treatment due to weakness or malnutrition and lowers the risk of complications, such as weight loss and dehydration.

Survivorship: Enjoy a longer life and lower your risk of recurrence

Maintaining a lifelong healthy lifestyle including a balanced diet, frequent exercise, and healthy weight is key to supporting efforts to avoid cancer recurrence. A diet consisting of plenty of plant-based foods, adequate fiber (25 – 30 grams per day), healthy fats, and lean proteins has shown promising results in lowering the return of some cancers.

When we cook at home, it is easier to manage the whole foods in our diet and understand exactly what we are eating. Even if you don’t consider yourself much of a chef, many cancer patients have found cooking to be an enjoyable hobby to pick up. Not only does it make nutrition management easier, but it can also be a great way to get in some extra family time! To learn more about healthy cooking for people touched by cancer, we recommend this great website, “Cook for Your Life.”

In addition to eating right, you should also maintain a routine exercise regimen. Being physically active at least 30 minutes per day has been associated with decreased cancer risks and promotes a healthy body weight. If just beginning to exercise, begin with a 15-minute walk and work your way up – progress over perfection.