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Nutrition

Good nutrition is vital at every stage of your cancer treatment and recovery.
Recommendations

 

Eating well gives you energy, helps you feel better and keeps your body strong so that you can better manage side effects from treatment. It will also help you heal and recover after treatment.

Will cancer treatments affect my eating?

People's responses to food during their cancer experience vary widely. Some continue to enjoy eating and their appetite stays strong. For them it is important to eat a well-balanced diet.

Other people find that they are unable to eat well. Cancer treatments can sometimes lead to side effects that can affect your ability to eat. The type of side effects will depend on your type of cancer and its treatment. Because each person is unique, side effects can vary from person to person. Most side effects go away a few days or weeks after treatment ends. For more specific information on how to cope with nutrition-related side effects, please see our Nutrition Handouts.

What do I eat after cancer diagnosis?

If you have lost weight without trying or have difficulty eating due to side effects from your cancer or treatment, please see our nutrition handouts or ask to speak to a registered dietitian at your cancer centre.

If you have no difficulty eating it is recommended that you follow a balanced diet throughout your cancer journey including after diagnosis, during treatment and after treatment to reduce your risk of cancer, cancer recurrence and other diseases.  Some specific recommendations from the American Institute for Cancer Research are:  

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Be physically active.  Participate in moderate intensity activity (ex. brisk walking) for at least 30 minutes each day.
  • Focus your diet on plant based foods.  Eat 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruits per day.
  • Choose whole grains more often than refined (white) grains.
  • Avoid sugary drinks.
  • Avoid or limit fast foods.
  • Limit intake of red meat (beef, pork, lamb, and goat) to less than 500g (18oz) per week.
  • Avoid processed meats.
  • Limit intake of alcoholic drinks to no more than 2 drinks per day for men, and 1 drink per day for women.

For more information:

For individual diet advice you can speak to an oncology dietitian at Health Link BC by calling 8-1-1 from anywhere in BC. 



Common questions

‎Sugar does not directly cause cancer or cause cancer to grow faster.  Glucose, a simple sugar, found in most carbohydrate foods (including added sugar, grains, cereals, beans, fruits, vegetables, and dairy) is the main energy source for all cells, including cancer cells.  Just like healthy cells, cancer cells need a blood supply, oxygen and energy to grow.  Limiting all sources of carbohydrate will not starve cancer cells and may negatively affect your healthy cells.  Your body needs energy and may use your muscle and fat tissue for energy, which is not recommended. 

 

Many healthy foods such as whole grains, cereals, beans, fruits, naturally contain sugar along with vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients.  Eat a variety of foods and limit table sugar (white or brown), soft drinks, sweet baked goods (cookies, cakes) and processed foods that contain large amounts of added sugar. 

 

You can read more about the sugar-cancer connection on the American Institute for Cancer Research website. 

The pH (acid-base balance) of your blood (body) is very tightly controlled within a narrow range by automatic bodily processes. Though parts of the digestive tract are either acidic or basic (to help with digestion), it is not possible to change the body’s blood pH by eating certain foods.  Your urine pH may change depending on what you eat, but this is not a reflection of your blood pH.  Your body excretes extra acidic substances (from metabolism) in the urine, which is one of the ways the body keeps the blood pH within the healthy and safe range. Choose foods for their nutritional content and not how they claim to change your pH.

Pesticides used in farming have the potential to build up in the body, which has caused concern for the risk of developing cancer. Current evidence suggests there may be a possible association between pesticides and some cancers. There is evidence both for and against a link between pesticides and the risk of developing cancer and more research is needed. To reduce your risk of pesticide exposure, buy foods that are locally grown, in season and be sure to peel and wash vegetables and fruits well.  
Buying organic food is an individual choice based on personal values, availability and cost.  Overall, it is believed that the potential risks associated with pesticides are not as great as the nutritional value of plant foods and their role in cancer prevention and promoting good health.  Therefore whether you choose organic or not it is important to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and obtain the recommended servings each day.

 

Organic vs Conventional Food: Understanding the Difference & Implication for Health is a presentation by Jesse Veenstra (PHSA Mobile Medical) from 2013. 
 

Having cancer does not mean you need to take supplements.  It is best to get your vitamins and mineral from food sources if you can.  Large doses of vitamins and minerals have not been shown to boost the immune system in well-nourished people or be beneficial for other reasons, and could cause harm. A once a day multivitamin and mineral supplement may be needed if you are not able to eat a variety of foods or if your diet has changed.  If you have questions about taking single nutrient supplements (ex. Calcium, Iron, vitamin D) talk to your health care team.

 

Can I take supplements during cancer treatment?

It is not recommended to take large amounts of antioxidants, including Vitamin A, C, E and selenium, in supplement forms during cancer treatment.  Many (but not all) chemotherapy drugs and radiation work by causing oxidative stress to kill cancer cells. Taking antioxidant supplements can counteract this. The amount found in foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and a once-a-day multivitamin and mineral supplement is safe during cancer treatment.  If you decide to take large doses of antioxidants, or other vitamins or minerals during treatment, speak to your health care team.  

Are herbal products safe?

Herbal products or Natural Health Products include vitamin/minerals, herbs and other products that come in many forms such as teas, powders, tablets and liquid extracts.  They are often thought to be safe because they are labeled as "natural".  This is not necessarily true.  Even though plants are natural, they are not always safe and their effect is not always known.   Many of these products can increase risk of drug interactions, cause less cancer cells to be destroyed by treatment and affect test results. If you would like to use herbal products during your cancer treatment, please discuss the safest way to do this with your health care team. 

Growth hormones are not approved for use in Canada in chickens or pigs or added to their feed. However, hormones may be used in beef cattle. One of the growth hormones used is a form of estrogen that occurs naturally in animals and humans. Any residues of these hormones in meat are very small
when compared to the amount of estrogen a woman produces daily. Residues are thought to be stored in fat – you can lower your intake of these residues
by choosing leaner cuts of meat, trimming visible fat or choosing other foods from the Meat and Alternatives group of Canada’s Food Guide.

 

Foods to include and avoid during cancer treatment is different for each person.  It is based on your type of cancer, the treatment you are receiving, and any symptoms or side effects you have that may be making it hard to meet your nutrition needs.
In general, cancer treatments can lower your immune system’s ability to protect itself from infection.  At this time, it is important to practice good food safety guidelines.
Most importantly, wash hands often with warm soapy water before and after preparing foods and before eating.
Make sure that food is well-cooked and that you avoid raw and undercooked eggs, meat, fish, poultry and seafood. This will decrease your exposure to bacteria and food borne illness.
Talk to your dietitian for more information.

 

You may have heard about particular foods such as plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and legumes) as “foods that fight cancer”.  This is largely based on evidence for diet recommendations to prevent cancer.  The research on foods to prevent cancer growth and recurrence is less clear.
If your weight is stable, within a healthy range and you don’t have any problems with eating, it is suggested you follow Canada’s Food Guide.
If you are underweight, have unintentional weight loss and/or have problems eating enough, you may need to choose foods that are higher in calories and protein. Depending on symptoms from your cancer or its treatment you may need to eat softer foods or foods lower in fiber. 
Ask your health care team about your individual nutritional needs.

 

After diagnosis, some people consider following a vegetarian diet. The addition of more plant foods to the diet is a healthy choice whether or not you choose to follow a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian diets are defined by the types of foods that are included. Some vegetarian diets include milk and/or eggs. If you decide to eat a vegetarian diet that includes milk products, the only nutrient that needs special attention is iron. To improve the absorption of iron eat plant sources of iron together with foods that contain Vitamin C.

You may not get enough protein when following a “vegan” diet or a vegetarian diet because it excludes or limits animal products such as meat, eggs and milk. To get enough protein with this diet you need two servings daily from the Meat and Alternatives group listed in Canada’s Food Guide.

 

A low fibre diet may be recommended if you are experiencing diarrhea or if you are at risk of a bowel blockage (obstruction).  If you have diarrhea a low fibre diet can help reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life.  If you are at risk of bowel blockage it is important to follow a low fibre diet to lower your risk of developing a blockage.  


When following a low fibre diet you are still able to eat a variety of foods including vegetables and fruit that are low in fibre.  See our nutrition handouts page for more information about a low fibre diet.  Ask to speak with a dietitian at your cancer centre or dial 8-1-1 to speak to a dietitian at Health Link BC to make sure you are meeting all of your nutritional needs when following a low fibre diet.


More resources

For practical food ideas and information, see our Nutrition Handouts.

 

Healthlink BC: A source for trusted health and nutrition information.  You can search their website or call 8-1-1 anywhere in BC, Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm to speak to a registered dietitian.  

Canadian Cancer Society website has information about all types of cancer, cancer treatment and side effects, coping with cancer and cancer prevention.

Nutrition and cancer resources:

Eating Well When you Have Cancer: Booklet by the Canadian Cancer Society

Nourish Magazine : Offers information relating to nutrition and cancer including advice from registered dietitians and recipes from a wellness chef.


American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) provides information on how to reduce your cancer risk. 


Cook for Your Life teaches healthy cooking to people touched by cancer.  Search for recipes based on your side effects, diet requirements and food preferences.


HEAL Well: A Cancer Nutrition Guide provides information about nutrition and cancer including common questions, and suggestions for dealing with cancer or cancer treatment related symptoms.  


Food, Nutrition and Physical Activity Recommendations has cancer prevention recommendations for the general population (from the Sunny Brook Health Sciences Centre).


Explore Meal Planning and Ask the Nutritionist by the Dana Farber Cancer Institute for information about making healthy food choices during and after cancer treatment.  You can also download their mobile app Ask the Nutritionist: Recipes for Fighting Cancer.


About Herbs was developed at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre.  It provides information about herbs, supplements, and more.  You can also download their mobile app


Safe Food Handling For People with Weakened Immune Systems

French Version

 

General nutrition resources:

Dietitians of Canada: Explore this website for general nutrition information.  Dietitians of Canada has also developed three mobile apps:

  • Cookspiration: Inspires you to cook any time, day or night.
  • EaTipster: Provides daily nutrition tips.
  • EaTracker: Track your food and acitivity choices, analyze your recipes and plan your meals. 
Healthy Eating: A Practical Guide : Developed at Concordia University.

Canada's Food Guide: Available in English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, and Urdu.

Canada's Food Guide: First Nations, Inuit and Metis: Available in English, Inuktitut, Ojibwe, Plains Cree, and Woods Cree.

Get Enough Helper: This mobile app was developed by the Dairy Farmers of Canada to help you find out if you're getting enough of what you need every day.


Physical activity resources:

Physical Activity: information from the public health agency of Canada


Physical Activity Line: is British Columbia's primary physical activity counselling service & your FREE resource for practical & trusted physical activity & healthy living information. 

 

BCCA videos and presentations


Cancer Related Appetite and Weight Loss: Video by Julie Tanguay-Gordon, registered dietitian at the Ottawa hospital cancer centre.


Cancer Related Nausea and Vomiting: Video by Sonia Marcil, registered dietitian at the Ottawa hospital cancer centre. 

 
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