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What cancer patients can do to prevent malnutrition during treatment

Woman drinks a smoothie while relaxing outside on a couch.
Blog

/ by Sean O'Nan, MS, RD, LD

Written by Sean O'Nan, a registered dietitian at UK Markey Cancer Center.

Going through cancer is hard. Depending on your specific diagnosis and treatment plan, you may experience side effects that make the process even harder. If you start to notice you aren’t eating as much as you used to or your clothes are starting to fit more loosely, you may be at risk for becoming malnourished. Maintaining a good nutritional status is important after a cancer diagnosis as it can affect treatment scheduling, how well treatments are received and possibly the final outcomes of treatment.

What is malnutrition?

Simply put, malnutrition refers to an imbalance in a person’s energy and nutrient intake. This can occur when a person is unable to consume enough calories from their diet to fuel their body. Patients may also experience malnutrition if they are not eating enough macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) or micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which both help the body function properly.

It's estimated that around 40 percent of cancer patients will begin to notice a decrease in their appetite or weight loss before being diagnosed. Some types of cancers, such as head and neck or gastrointestinal cancers, can increase a patient’s risk for becoming malnourished due to their effects on a person’s ability to eat by mouth or absorb nutrients properly. Weight loss has also been associated with decreased performance: As little as 6 percent weight loss predicts a reduced response to different cancer treatments, decreased survival rates and quality of life. 

What can I do to prevent malnutrition?

Here are some tips to help you prevent malnutrition as you navigate your cancer diagnosis:

  1. Be mindful of calorie and protein intake. If you're experiencing a loss of appetite, eat or drink something that has both calories and protein each time you are able to. This will help provide your body the energy you need as well as preservation of lean muscle mass and will support the healing of damaged tissues.
  2. Try smaller, more frequent feedings. Eating three large meals each day may be overwhelming when you are having difficulty eating. Instead, try to consume five to six smaller meals throughout the day and have plenty of snacks available in case you feel hungry between meal times. Take advantage of any time you feel hungry and try to eat or drink something!
  3. Drink your calories. Sometimes it’s easier to drink your calories if you're experiencing swallowing difficulties or if you find it easier to tolerate liquids. Consider making milkshakes or smoothies at home to help with nutritional status. These can be customized based on particular dietary needs or flavor preferences. Or, try convenient, ready-to-drink oral nutrition supplements, such as Boost, Ensure, Glucerna, etc.

Cancer patients may also face many barriers to preventing malnutrition, such as financial troubles, side effects of cancer or treatment, lack of access to food, etc. If you're experiencing any issues that may limit your nutritional intake, reach out to your medical team so that they can connect you with appropriate resources for your specific needs.

For additional information regarding diet and nutrition for cancer patients at Markey Cancer Center, please call 859-323-2798 and ask to speak with a registered dietitian.

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6 foods to help cancer patients maintain weight 2 recipes to add antioxidant-rich snacks to your diet 8 tricks to improve your sense of taste and smell during treatment