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Separating Mainstream Diets From Oncology Nutrition

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A nutritionist discussed the difference between mainstream diets and oncology nutrition, and how patients with cancer can ensure they’re on the right track to being well-nourished throughout cancer treatment.

Mainstream diets may not be appropriate for people with a cancer diagnosis, so it is imperative that patients know how best to eat to support their health — and how that may differ from fad diets that are seen online and on social media, according to Margaret Martin, a registered dietician and nutrition educator at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).

“People confuse adult or wellness nutrition with oncology nutrition, and they can be very different,” Martin said in an interview with CURE®.

Mainstream vs. Cancer-Specific Nutrition

Martin explained that oftentimes, wellness or mainstream nutrition focuses on losing weight. However, cancer and its treatments can cause patients to lose weight, so maintaining — or even gaining — weight may be a more appropriate goal of someone with cancer, unless their clinicians say otherwise.

According to Martin, sometimes patients have already lost up to 10% of their bodyweight by the time they are diagnosed, and then side effects from treatment, which can include nausea, vomiting, or pain and difficulty swallowing, depending on the treatment type, can make eating even more difficult.

READ MORE: Cancer Survivors Share Their Eating Struggles

“(Weight loss) is not the goal in cancer care. The goal is to nourish your body as best as you can so you can take your treatments as scheduled and have the best quality of life,” Martin said.

Another misconception about cancer-related nutrition revolves around the usage of popular or fad diets, according to Martin.

“Many people who are in the public tend to promote different popular diets that are not nutritionally complete,” she said. “That can cause problems for people with cancer because they not only need to meet their present nutritional needs, but then they usually have to increase their protein and calories by about 20% or more. If you’re on a fad diet, you’re not often going to get that.”

How to Find the Right Nutrition Information

Since there is an abundance of diet-related information available, Martin emphasized that it is important for patients to work with a dietician to help determine the best way of eating for their individual circumstance.

“The first thing I suggest is asking the center where you’re receiving your cancer care. They may have a registered dietitian or nutritionist on staff,” she said, noting that if the cancer center does not offer nutritional services, patients can also call a larger cancer institution to see what they offer, explore Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, where individuals can search to find an expert in their area who may accept their insurance, or reach out to their local public health department.

Martin also highlighted that organizations such as the LLS offer nutritional counseling from a registered dietician through their PearlPoint Nutrition Services, a service that offers free nutrition education for patients with any type of cancer.

Nutrition Advice for Patients With Cancer

When it comes to eating to support health during cancer treatment, Martin said that a good first step is to find foods that can be eaten and absorbed with the least amount of discomfort. Start slowly, she said, and focus on adding more plants (such as fruits and vegetables) to the diet.

“Find some plants that you can enjoy and can include in your menu, in a form that you can actually absorb,” she said. “Cooked (vegetables) works a lot better for people than raw vegetables, which are more difficult to digest, but cooked veggies are just a nutritious as raw.”

While cooked versus raw vegetables usually offer the same nutrition profile, Martin recommends turning to foods like these — real, whole foods — to get essential vitamins and minerals rather than supplements.

Martin also explained that cancer treatments can also impede on patients’ hunger signals, so it is important to stay nourished — even with a lack of appetite.

Finally, Martin stressed the importance of patients speaking up when they have questions or concerns about eating.

“Don’t be shy; tell your treatment team if you’re having nutritional problems or digestive issues,” she said. “They hear about this every day and can really help you to manage your digestion so you can stay on a stead intake of foods and fluids.”

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