Nutrition in cancer: How to nourish your body against illness?

Nutrition in cancer: How to nourish your body against illness?

Cancer is considered to be the worst enemy of humanity. It impairs patients' quality of life and makes them weaker. Cachexia and anorexia are known to be the two most common reasons behind this malnutrition among cancer patients. This state of deprived nutrition significantly affects the cancer treatment and post-cancer recovery of patients. In this scenario, the importance of proper and whole nutrition becomes double.

Living a healthier life while receiving various cancer treatments is a mixture of good lifestyle, an appropriate and balanced diet, and regular physical activity. Proper nutrition helps patients better cope with illness, improves treatment tolerance and reduces the risk of treatment-associated side effects by maintaining strength, immunity and healthy weight.

People should keep updating themselves about what to eat & how to eat to stay strong and healthier during cancer or maintain their body prevented from cancer. For keeping your diet healthy and nutritious, you need to keep some integral things in mind.

Let's go through these things once to know what is essential to eat and what not:

  • What causes malnutrition in cancer patients?
  • How to know if you are suffering from malnutrition?
  • How to achieve the required nutritional status?
  • What should be on a healthy plate?
  • WCRF/AICR Lifestyle Recommendations for cancer patients
  • Do's and Don'ts for cancer patients

What causes malnutrition in cancer patients?

Even though patients are trying their best to cope with cancer treatment and eating well, they still cannot consume enough nutrients. Do you ever think why? There can be particular reasons behind this pattern. Knowing the reason is very important to cope with the situation.

The first reason is the type of cancers associated with an abrupt digestive system and the second reason is treatment-associated side effects. Let's discuss this in tiny detail -

Cancers related to increased risk of malnutrition

  • Stomach cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Intestinal cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Head and neck cancers

Cancer treatment-associated adverse effects that can cause malnutrition

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Mucositis (Inflammation of digestive system)
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Change in smell and taste

These factors can affect your eating habits, thus eventually leading to malnutrition.

How to know if you are suffering from malnutrition?

People can evaluate themselves if they are suffering from malnutrition or not. It can be done by measuring the BMI of the body. What is BMI? Let's have a look:


The BMI (Body Mass Index) is an easy and inexpensive way to measure body weight and evaluate whether you are underweight, healthy, overweight or obese. It is calculated by dividing a person's weight (kilograms) by the square of height (meter).

For example, your weight is 68 kg, and your height is 165 cm (1.65 m). Then your BMI must be 68 ÷ (1.65)2 = 24.98

  • If your BMI is below 18.5, you are underweight.
  • If your BMI is between 18.5 – 24.9, you are healthy.
  • If your BMI is between 25.0 – 29.9, you are overweight.
  • If your BMI is above 30.0, you are obese.

A doctor can also use other tools like Nutritional Risk Screening (NRS), Subjective Global Assessment (SGA) or Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool (MUST) to precisely measure your status while treating cancer.

How nutrition therapy can help during cancer treatment?

Optimizing nutritional status in body with metabolic support can make you strong during cancer. It will nourish your body with essential nutrients required to recover from cancer treatment.

Good nutrition can be beneficial during cancer treatment and can:

  • Strengthen your immune system
  • Preserve body lean mass
  • Helps in rebuilding body tissues
  • Increase energy and boost metabolism
  • Reduces the risk of infections
  • Improve your quality of life
  • Maintains body ability to tolerate treatment
  • Prepares for survivorship

How to achieve the required nutritional status?

A patient must consult the doctor and dietitian from time to time to keep their nutritional status updated. They must take prescribed medications and alternative therapies to relieve pain, nausea, vomiting and other treatment-associated side effects. They should have a whole meal to get every nutrient. For this, they must follow a healthy pyramid.

Balanced nutrition pyramid

Every person's food plan is personalized according to weight, age, sex, height, physical activity and overall health. However, every person should include vegetables, fruits, protein and grains daily in required amounts.

  • Vegetables and fruits should be ofdifferent colours and various types.
  • The whole grains should be whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and oats etc.
  • Healthy oils include soy, corn, sunflower, peanut,olive and trans-free margarine.
  • Proteins include beans, fish, chicken andnuts.
  • Water, tea and coffee (with limited sugar intake)

Further, the following pyramid can guide what to eat in what quantities. You can follow this pyramid and make your diet plan accordingly:

Besides well-balanced nutrition, this pyramid also stresses a healthy lifestyle, including proper exercise, controlling weight, and regular intake of necessary supplements (as prescribed by a physician).

What should be on a healthy plate?

The next question is how much diet you should include on your plate daily. For this, you can follow the following given chart and complete a full nutritious meal for yourself.

  • Vegetables and fruits – ½ plate
  • Proteins – ¼ plate
  • Whole grains – ¼ plate
  • Plant oils – In moderation
  • Water or other healthy drinks

World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) Lifestyle Recommendations for cancer patients

  1. Physical activity: Don't be a couch potato. Instead, be physically active and do at least exercise for about 30 minutes.
  2. Body fat: Maintain weight without becoming underweight.
  3. Animal Foods: Avoid eating processed meats and limit the intake of red meats like pork and lamb.
  4. Plant Foods: Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and pulses.
  5. Dietary supplements: Don't take supplements to prevent cancer and without the guidance of your physician.
  6. Alcoholic drinks: Limit the alcohol intake up to 2 glasses for men and one glass for women.
  7. Sodium: Limit the intake of salty foods and processed foods with salt.
  8. Other limitations: Limit the consumption of fast foods or foods high in starch, sugars and fats.

Do's and Don'ts for cancer patients

There are some little kitchen habits which by following you can protect yourself from several infections:


  • Always wash knives, countertops, plates and hands before and after cooking.
  • Must soak frozen vegetables and fruits in water if you are not going to cook them.
  • Scrub and peel the rough vegetables and fruits; if not, then always used them after rinsing and soaking in water.
  • Always keep the leftovers in the refrigerator.
  • Consume juices and milk which are pasteurized.
  • Always thaw the fish, chicken or turkey in the refrigerator or defrost in the microwave. Cook these properly.
  • Must include soups, smoothies, milkshakes and juices in your diet.


  • Don't eat raw nuts.
  • Don't eat expired foods.
  • Don't keep any leftovers if they are three days old.
  • Don't eat any perishable food item if it is out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • Don't be on low-calorie foods or fluids.
  • Don't stick to 3 meals a day; you can have small 5-6 meals throughout the day when you feel hungry.
  • Don't use the same repeatedly heating cooking oil, as it becomes rancified and harmful for overall health.


Maintaining nutrition can be difficult, but it is extremely beneficial for your body in the long run. Eating well with optimum amount of physical activity can help to fight cancer or reduce the risk of getting cancer.

If you are struggling to make nutritional recommendations, you should seek professional support. A health care professional with expertise in nutrition can screen for malnutrition and reduces the chances of various nutritional deficiency associated with various cancer treatment.

This way, you can also prevent yourself from suffering from anaemia, cachexia and malnutrition. Be fit, do yoga, eat healthily and keep your body away from illness.

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