Maximizing nutrition during chemo and radiation

When you are fighting for your life against cancer, all aspects of your health come under scrutiny. Your lab work is checked meticulously, you choose the best chemo and radiation protocols, make arrangements for your household, work, finances, and children. But who discussed your nutrition with you? Was the conversation limited to expected weight loss? Focused on getting calories and protein and declared the time to ‘just eat whatever sounds good’? Were you assured that if you couldn’t feed yourself or swallow anymore that the canned meal replacement ‘shake’ would meet all your needs? If you are already thinking about a meal replacement or tube feeding, skip to here. Then come back for the following details.

Consider that every molecule in your body comes from or is influenced by food. Nutrition is then paramount to your survival. That’s right—-every molecule comes from or is influenced by what you put in your body. From your fingernails, to your fat cells, to your bones, liver, red blood cells, even your thoughts are chemical messengers made from the food you eat. That means great nutrition can change your experience, tolerance, and recovery from chemo and radiation. Great nutrition…not good enough nutrition.

I can’t over emphasize the importance of nutrient density in nutrition. Nutrient density refers to foods that are rich in a variety of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and/or fiber. Beyond calories, carbs, protein and fat, a body that is under attack from cancer and trying to deal with chemo or radiation needs lots of nutrients. Think of these nutrients as the ninja repair team for your body. Minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins are key players in helping your immune cells process chemotherapy and respond with repair to radiation. Chemotherapeutic medicines and radiation destroy cancer cells but also damage healthy cells. Your immune system will attempt to repair these damaged cells but needs tools provided by nutrient dense foods. Eating whole unprocessed food, primarily of plant origin is where you’ll find the nutrients for these important body processes:

~ Removal of toxic molecules from the body: the liver and kidney remove waste products of metabolism, medications, and inflammatory molecules.

~ Endothelium function: an specialized system in the blood vessels that allows transport of oxygen, nitric oxide, white blood cells without which life doesn’t exist.

~ Cellular defense: signaling molecules that ‘turn off’ cancer cell growth while promoting healthy cell growth.

~ Energy production: carbs and fat need cofactors to make energy, these come from B vitamins, CoQ10, Vitamin C and many other nutrients.

It’s also important to get enough calories and protein you need. Here’s two calculations to be sure you are close to your target needs. You may need more or less depending on a variety of factors—a registered Dietitian or nutritionist specializing in cancer can be more exact, but this will get you close. Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to determine your weight in kilos.
Calculating calorie needs: 25-35 calories per kilogram of body weight. 
Calculating protein needs: 1-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight.

To ensure you are getting enough nutrient dense foods, a great place to start is with this simple guide the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate.
Stack 1/2 your plate veggies, 1/4 with complex carb, 1/4 with protein, include a source of healthy fat. Include 2-3 servings of whole fruits daily.
if you are having trouble with your appetite, you can use my Healthy Snacks handout to put together mini-meals. Eating a mini-meal every 3 hours is a great way to boost the nutrition you need.

Next, I’ll discuss the importance of nutrient density for special formulas used for meal replacement or tube feedings. Stay tuned.