Maintaining good nutrition after a cancer diagnosis, during treatment and beyond is very important and has many benefits including:
- Giving you more energy
- Keeping your muscles strong
- Helping you maintain a healthy weight
- Improving your mood
- Helping your body cope with side effects of treatment
- Improving your immune system and ability to fight infections
- Reducing the risk of cancer coming back or of other health conditions
Cancer and cancer treatment can present additional nutrition challenges, like increased energy requirements or taste changes. This article covers some tips and commonly asked questions about food and nutrition during and after cancer treatment.
What foods should I eat?
There are no special foods or diets that are scientifically proven to prevent or cure cancer. However, you can still decrease the risk of developing cancer and improve your recovery by following nutrition guidelines. This includes:
- Eating foods from the five food groups: fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, meat and/or protein alternatives and dairy.
- Eating mainly plant foods like vegetables, wholegrains and beans. Eating two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables per day.
- Eating chicken, fish, eggs, legumes and tofu for protein and limiting red meat to less than 500g per week.
- Limiting junk foods, sugary drinks and alcohol.
For some great recipes and ideas to increase fruit and vegetables in your diet, visit Cancer Council WA’s LiveLighter website.
Preparing for treatment
- Try to eat as well as you can before starting treatment.
- Do some physical activity to build muscle if you are feeling well enough.
- Plan for days that you don’t feel like cooking by filling your freezer with frozen meals or organising a meal roster with family and friends.
- You can ask your general practitioner (GP) or other health professionals for a referral to a dietitian for advice about what to eat.
- You may need food with more energy (kilojoules) and protein . .
- If you don’t have much of an appetite, try eating small, frequent meals or snacks.
- Cold foods have less smell and taste and can be easier to manage if you’re feeling nauseous.
- Do regular physical activity to improve appetite and mood, reduce fatigue, help digestion and prevent constipation.
- Aim to maintain your body weight, and let your treating team know if you notice significant weight loss.
- Check with your doctor or dietitian before taking vitamin or mineral supplements or making major changes to your diet.
After treatment and recovery
- Aim to follow general healthy eating guidelines.
- Eat a wide variety of foods and do some physical activity to help with recovery.
- For the lowest risk of cancer, avoid alcohol. If you do drink alcohol, follow the Australian guidelines and drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week.
- Visit your doctor for regular check-ups and see a dietitian for support.
Cancer and nutrition FAQs
Should I take vitamin supplements?
Vitamins and minerals are an essential part of a healthy diet and play an important role in the body’s immune system. It’s best to get your vitamins and minerals from eating whole foods. Most people who eat a wide variety of foods don’t need to take vitamin and mineral supplements. Supplements can interact with cancer medicines, so it’s important that your treating team knows what you are taking. Seek advice from your doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist.
Does sugar feed cancer cells?
All the cells in our body need fuel to function, multiply and grow. Sugar (or glucose) is one of these sources of fuel. Cancer cells prefer glucose, but they can use other energy sources too. A sugar-free diet doesn’t prevent cancer cells from growing, however, we can all benefit from eating less sugar. Although sugar does not directly cause cancer, having too much sugar can increase the risk of weight gain and excess body fat which is linked to an increased risk of certain cancers.
Is there a certain diet or superfood that can cure cancer?
There are no special foods or diets that have been scientifically proven to prevent or cure cancer.
Be very wary of people and products that make this claim. If there’s something you’d like to try, talk to a dietitian. They can help you weigh up the risks and benefits, including the cost (money and time), and help you meet any nutrient gaps in the diet.