Nutrition and Cancer

Cancer and cancer treatments can make it challenging to eat well and maintain good nutrition and health status.

Good nutrition is important for people living with cancer. Eating well before during and after treatment can help to:

  • support immune function
  • decrease the risk of infection
  • preserve muscle mass and weight
  • increase strength and energy

How can a dietitian help?

A dietitian can provide strategies to patients having difficulty eating normally and who are losing weight as a result of cancer and treatment-related side effects. Dietitians complete a full medical and nutritional history in order to provide nutrition education and recommendations tailored to patients’ individual needs.

If you are interested in meeting with a dietitian, speak to a member of you cancer care team and they will connect you.

Nutrition Q&A

  • Wash your hands before eating or preparing foods
  • Wash fruit and vegetables well
  • Store foods at the right temperature
  • Cook foods to the proper temperature. Meat, poultry and seafood should be thoroughly cooked
  • Choose pasteurized honey, milk and fruit juice and avoid raw versions
  • Thaw meat, fish or poultry in the microwave or refrigerator (not on the counter)
  • Eat thawed food right away, do not refreeze
  • Avoid making any significant diet changes or restrictions before or during treatment unless advised by your doctor or dietitian
  • Try to eat a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Optimize your intake with protein and healthy fats
  • It’s okay if your diet looks different than your normal, a dietitian can work with you to develop an individualized plan based on your symptoms
  • Eat foods that you tolerate and enjoy
  • Drink adequate fluid- at least 8-10 cups (2.0-2.5L) per day unless otherwise instructed by your doctor

If you are experiencing side effects such as weight loss, poor appetite, constipation, diarrhea or nausea a dietitian can help you with strategies to improve your intake and assist with managing symptoms. You may also find yourself receiving various nutrition tips from friends, family, and other sources that can be both conflicting and overwhelming information. A dietitian can help you sort out what information is right for you.

  • Ask a member of your cancer care team for a referral to a dietitian for individualized strategies
  • Include small more frequent meals and snacks, having something to eat or drink every 2-3 hours
  • Try calorie-containing liquids between meals like milk, soy beverage, smoothies, or nutrition supplements
  • Choose high calorie and protein food and drinks
  • Eat your largest meal when feeling your best

Nausea and vomiting are serious symptoms of cancer treatment that can have a big impact; here are some strategies that may help:

  • Take your anti-nausea medication as prescribed by your doctor
  • Sit up for 30-60 minutes after eating
  • Suck on hard candies or lemon drops
  • Sip on small amounts of liquids often during the day
  • Eat small amounts often, every 1-2 hours
  • Avoid deep-fried, spicy and food with a strong odour
  • Take advantage of days when nausea is better and eat as much as you are able
  • Try: 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt in 4 cups of water, and place in large jug
  • Make a new batch every day
  • Rinse every 1-2 hours if your mouth is dry or sore, otherwise 4-5 times a day
  • Rinse right after meals or snacks
  • Water
  • Watered-down juice or sports drinks
  • Flat ginger ale
  • broths
  • Ice chips
  • Popsicles
  • Tea
  • Frozen fruit
  • Try meatless sources of protein like baked beans, legumes, lentils, yogurt, eggs, nut butter
  • Use plastic utensils and glass cookware instead of metal
  • Eat meat, poultry and fish with tart foods like lemon or lime juice or your favourite marinade
  • Use sugarless lemon candies, mints and chewing gum to rid your mouth of the metallic aftertaste

Yes. Please ask a member of your health care team, for a dietitian referral. Dietitians can help you manage special diets after stomach surgery, if you have an ostomy, or are looking for nutrition tips to help with healing.

  • Choose drinks that provide calories, such as milk, juice and smoothies over water
  • Choose higher fat milk, cheese, yogurt and sour cream
  • Add butter or oil to potatoes, vegetables, pasta, rice and soups
  • Add cheese to eggs, sandwiches, soups/stews, potatoes and casseroles
  • Add nuts/seeds to cereal, yogurt, baked goods and salads
  • Add avocado or mayonnaise to sandwiches, sauces and dips
  • Spread nut butters on apple slices, celery sticks, toast and crackers or add them to smoothies
  1. Drink more fluids
    • This helps keeps your stools soft
    • Aim for at least 2 L (8 cups) of fluids per day or as per your physician
  1. Eat foods that are high in fibre
    • This adds bulk to your stools and keeps your bowels moving
    • High fibre foods: vegetables, fruit, cereals, whole grains, beans/legumes, nuts/seeds
  1. Try adding natural food laxatives to your diet
    • Prunes, prune juice, papayas, pears, apples, dried apricots, rhubarb
  • Maintain a healthy weight, being overweight or underweight increases your risk for recurrence
  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and increase sources of vegetable-based protein and fats such as soy, nuts, seeds, and legumes
  • Limit consumption of red meat (less than 18oz per week) and avoid processed meats
  • Limit foods high in sugar and salt
  • If you drink alcohol, limit the amount to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women
  • Watch portion sizes; use the plate model as a guide. Fill your plate with ½ vegetables, ¼ starch (i.e. potatoes, rice, pasta) and ¼ protein (i.e. fish, legumes, nuts, poultry, eggs, dairy, lean meat)
  • Drink water and limit calorie-containing liquids like juice and pop
  • Eat and prepare your food at home, and reduce how often you are eating out
  • Avoid restrictive diets, they are difficult to maintain and can often lead to weight regain
  • Make small goals, that you can work towards overtime
  • Seek support around depression, anxiety and stress, which can impact the ability to make and sustain diet and lifestyle changes
  • Adequate and restful sleep
  • Be active

Nutrition Resources

Canadian Cancer Society - Eating well when you have cancer: This booklet includes tips on how to eat well after a cancer diagnosis, through treatment and during recovery. It provides ideas to help with symptoms and side effects that can affect eating. 

Canadian Cancer Society - Nutrition for people with cancer: This portion of the Canadian Cancer Society website includes nutrition information for people with cancer, including the importance of calories and protein and practical ways to optimize these foods in your diet.

Canadian Cancer Society - Food safetyThis portion of the Canadian Cancer Society website explains the importance of food safety and precautions you can take to reduce your risk of infection.

American Cancer Society - Nutrition for people with cancer: This website is another resource offering nutrition information for people with cancer including living well during treatment and through survivorship.

NourishAdvice from Dietitians working in oncology, including eating well tips for different types of cancers. This resource also includes recipe ideas from a wellness chef.

Cancer Care Ontario - Managing Symptoms, and Side Effects and Wellbeing: Guides that include strategies to help manage symptoms and side effects such as constipation, nausea, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting.

BC Cancer Agency - Nutrition HandoutsList of nutrition handouts for oncology patients related to managing symptoms. The website includes a variety of meal ideas including high energy/high protein foods, smoothies, easy to chew recipes and low or high fibre diets. Chinese and Korean translation available in some resources.

ELLICSR KitchenA program designed to support people with cancer by providing skills and information to manage diet. They host healthy cooking demonstrations led by a Wellness Chef and Dietitian. This website also includes recipe ideas for different side effects.

Wellspring - Nourish Program: Wellspring provides a variety of supportive care programs and services, to anyone living with cancer. Wellspring’s Nourish program provides many different sessions on cancer and nutrition using the latest research to teach the fundamentals of good nutritional practices for cancer patients. Workshops often include cooking demonstrations, food sampling and take-home recipes.

American Institute for Cancer ResearchDiet and lifestyle recommendations for cancer survivors as well as reducing cancer risk.

Dietitians of Canada - Unlock Food: General information on nutrition, food and healthy eating, including recipes, videos and interactive tools. 

Dietitians of Canada - Find a Dietitian: This website includes information on how to work with a dietitian and a search engine to help you “Find a Dietitian” working in private practice. Dietitians working in private practice, grocery stores and in your family doctor's office can help you with your healthy eating and weight loss goals after treatment. 

Canada’s Food Guide

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