Including the these 5 components to a healthy diet during radiation therapy is a recipe for a swift recovery with fewer side effects. Radiation therapy can change how a patient’s body accepts certain foods and uses nutrients. Each radiation therapy patient reacts differently to treatment but here are the basic guidelines to develop a diet while undergoing radiation therapy for cancer:
- Pay attention to your side effects and how they affect your appetite. Discuss the changes with your doctor.
- Plan ahead for changes to your diet
- Focus on nutrient dense foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean proteins. Avoid saturated fats, sugar, salt, and alcohol
- Change your eating habits and times. Eat smaller meals more frequently.
- Stay hydrated. Water is best but there are other healthy options.
1. Listen To What Your Body Is Telling You
Most patients experience little or no side effects during cancer treatment, while some experience any of a number of side effects. Side effects can occur the same day or after treatment. Radiation therapy mostly affects cancerous cells, but it can impact healthy cells as well. When good cells are affected, patients may experience various side effects. The location of the body targeted by radiation therapy can cause different side effects including:
- lack of appetite or taste
- gas and bloating
- mouth sores
- difficulty swallowing
- weight loss
Adjustments to diets to may include switching to a bland diet or adding lots of flavorful foods to your meals. Listen to your body and adjust your diet according to what it is telling you. Tell your doctor if you begin to experience any side effects from your radiation therapy.
2. Be Prepared – Stock Up On Healthy Foods
Another ingredient to a healthy diet during radiation therapy is to plan ahead. Stock up your pantry with diverse and healthy foods. Prepare and store healthy meals in your refrigerator and freezer before you begin therapy. A small amount of pre-planning and preparation will make it easy to eat well even if you are not feeling your best.
3. Eat Nutrient-Dense Meals
Eating nutrient-dense meals is a factor in recovery from radiation therapy. Eating high calorie, low nutrient meals will not give the body what it needs to heal and as a result, will slow-down recovery time. Choose fresh and colorful foods for your diet. Here is a list of foods to include:
Fruits and vegetables
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables including dark-green, red, and orange vegetables, beans, and peas. Make fruits and vegetables the focal point of every meal. If difficulty eating raw fruits and vegetables is experienced, try eating soft steamed or cooked vegetables and canned fruit. If digestion is uncomfortable due to cramping or gas, consider altering the amount of fiber in the diet to see if that helps. Fruits and vegetables are often high in fiber and may help with stool consistency, but may also lead to gas that can be avoided.
Fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk and milk products
Milk and milk products, such as cheese and yogurt, provide calcium, potassium, and other nutrients. If you avoid dairy or have trouble digesting dairy products, include no sugar added soy, almond, or coconut milk.
Whole grains include brown rice, 100% whole grain breads and rolls, and Steel Cut Oatmeal. Quinoa is a whole grain that is high in protein, lacks gluten, and is easy to prepare. Try substituting Quinoa for white rice in meals to increase your protein intake. In general, whole grains are more beneficial than processed carbohydrates like white breads.
Eat a variety of protein-rich foods that are low in fat. Include seafood, lean meat and poultry, Greek yogurts, eggs, beans, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Some soy products are highly processed and not as good for you as other types of soy. Edamame (young soybeans in a pod) would be a good choice for adding healthy soy to your diet. It is recommended that individuals get at least 10% of calories from proteins.
Foods to avoid or reduce
Foods to avoid or reduce during radiation therapy include sodium (salt), added sugars, solid (saturated) fats, and an excess of alcohol. Some salt is needed in all diets. Your doctor or dietitian can recommend how much salt you should consume based on your medical history.
In addition to foods to avoid that are listed above, spicy foods can cause gastrointestinal problems during radiation therapy. While nausea and diarrhea are symptoms of radiation therapy, spicy foods can lead to cramping and an upset stomach.
If you are receiving radiation therapy for head and neck cancer, refrain from consuming foods that may get stuck when swallowing or are high in acid (tomato-based foods, etc.). This is recommended when an individual is receiving radiation therapy near their throat or mouth, as some foods can irritate the mouth.
During radiation therapy, it’s important to limit the chance of contracting a food borne illness. Consumption of raw or undercooked foods should be avoided to limit the risk of food poisoning. For example, if you are currently receiving radiation therapy or recently stopped, your doctor may recommend not eating cold deli lunch meat, unpasteurized milk, undercooked eggs, unwashed fruits and vegetables, undercooked/raw shellfish, sushi and more.
4. Break The Rules
Keeping a good diet during your radiation therapy may mean throwing your regular meal rules out and making up your own, new meal rules. Eating smaller meals, more often, is helpful when you are experiencing side effect from radiation therapy. Eating 5 small meals a day rather than eating 3 large meals will help make food digestion easier and avoid nausea. Chew your food slowly. Take your time eating each small meal.
Break usual mealtime traditions by eating long-established meals at different times during the day. If you don’t feel like eating breakfast food early in the morning, try eating a small serving of baked chicken and rice, a cream or broth based soup, or even ice cream for breakfast! On the other hand, you might feel like eating breakfast foods for dinner. Don’t limit the types of healthy foods you eat based on the time of day.
5. Drink Plenty Of Liquids
Hydration is an important aspect of a healthy radiation diet. Drink water or other liquids frequently. If you do not care for the taste of water, try sneaking water into soup broths, fruit shakes, and flavored teas. It is important to drink lots of water and staying hydrated especially if you experience diarrhea during radiation therapy. Jello, pudding, popsicles and juice are additional hydration sources. It is recommended that individuals drink 6 to 8 cups of liquids every day. Keep a filled water bottle with you at all times and drink, drink, drink.
Listening to your body, being prepared, eating nutrient-dense meals, making your own mealtime rules, and drinking plenty of liquids is a recipe for success in treatment. By following these top 5 ingredients to a healthy diet during radiation therapy, patients will improve their odds of staying active and strong during and after treatment.
Related Reading: Radiation vs Chemo – the differences between the two options and what you need to know about side effects.