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Cancer Care: Why Nutrition Matters

80% of cancer patients suffer from malnutrition.

That’s a shocking figure, and particularly devastating because these patients need as much strength as possible to heal. Getting the right nutrients — vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and carbs — affects their ability to fight infection, and to be strong enough to deal with the debilitating effect of some treatments.

“Good meals are an essential part of the recovery process. The body is fighting such a hard battle against cancer, and the treatments are very draining,” says Judith Pelot, senior nutrition manager for Caring Plate, a Knoxville-based meal delivery service for cancer patients. “Food becomes very important, but the ability to prepare it is also challenging.”

Nutrient absorption

Cancer and its treatment can interfere with the body’s ability to process food, particularly if the cancer affects organs that aid in digestion. In these cases, even if the patient is eating relatively well, their bodies don’t absorb important nutrients, or don’t store fat and muscle properly.


Patients may lose their appetite after chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or they may not enjoy food because the disease alters their sense of smell or taste. But severe weight loss can make radiation therapy less effective. It targets a specific area of the body, so if a patient loses so much weight that their body shrinks significantly, the radiation field may not be as accurate.

Pain and exhaustion

Some patients develop mouth sores that make eating painful, or they have difficulty chewing or swallowing. Fatigue, pain or depression can also limit a patient’s ability to shop for groceries or cook meals for themselves.

Side effects

Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea can turn patients away from food, or lessen the absorption of nutrients if they do eat.

A change in eating habits can help patients overcome many of these issues.

Choose foods that are high in protein, calories and key nutrients

  • Simply substituting quinoa for white rice in a dish will increase the amount of protein the patient gets in each bite.
  • A spoonful of chia or flax seeds mixed into yogurt or used as a garnish on any dish adds omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
  • There are highly nourishing choices — roasted vegetables, hearty stews, banana milkshakes — that can appeal to all kinds of personal tastes.

Make it bite-size or spoonable

When eating is difficult, the way food is prepared can be the solution.

  • Soft foods like scrambled eggs, puddings or tuna salad are easy on mouth sores.
  • Meats and vegetables cut into small pieces are easier to chew and swallow.
  • Sauces and gravies moisten foods to make them easier to eat.  
  • Almost any type of food can be transformed into a nourishing and good-tasting soup.

Eat a little, more often

Nausea is a common side effect of cancer treatment, but an empty stomach can make the feeling worsen. It’s best to eat or sip a little throughout the day rather than tackle a full meal all at once. Soft cheese, avocado or tender, well-cooked carrots or squash are good choices.

Go for stronger flavors

It seems counterintuitive, but stimulating a person’s sense of smell or taste with strong flavors can enhance the appeal of food.

  • Lemons and limes add a bit of tartness.
  • Herbs like oregano, tarragon or rosemary give another dimension to meats and vegetables.
  • Marinating foods increases the intensity of flavor.

Cancer patients and their families are already dealing with a lot, and adopting a new approach to meals can feel overwhelming. The stress on caregivers often affects their ability to eat well also.

The American Cancer Society offers recipes for cancer patients on its website, and the National Cancer Institute booklet Eating Hints: Before, During and After Cancer Treatment includes diet advice and recipes for specific side effects of treatment.

Charitable organizations like Knoxville’s Caring Table and Meals 4 Health & Healing in Nashville prepare and deliver nourishing meals to cancer patients and their caregivers.

“We always want to present meals that are flavorful and appealing,” says Katharine Ray, executive director of Meals 4 Health & Healing. “Our priority is comfort foods, and our chef mimics them in a healthy way. For most people this is a transition diet, and we show them how they can incorporate foods that may be new to them, like bok choy or eggplant, and enjoy them. The flavors are so good that realize that it is a better way to eat.”

For more information on organizations helping cancer patients in Tennessee, click here.

Get the recipe for Meals 4 Health & Healing’s Honey Mustard Salmon with Sweet Potato Wedges. 

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson, a writer and editor originally from New York, moved to Nashville more than 25 years ago and considers herself more Tennessean than Yankee these days. As Editor at Parthenon Publishing since 2005, she has written about health care and wellness for a variety of publications.

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