Meal planning is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re facing a serious illness such as breast cancer. Yet eating healthy is actually an important part of your treatment plan, says Erin Rossi, RD, who works with cancer patients at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Eating well has physical, mental, and emotional benefits,” she explains. “The foods you consume can give you the energy you need to get through treatment with as few side effects as possible while helping you maintain a sense of well-being and control.” Eating is pleasurable too, and when you aren’t feeling at the top of your game, you’ll do well to treat yourself to delicious and nutritious eats.
With that in mind, put these nutrient-rich options on your plate as often as you can. (Always check with your doctor before making a dietary switch in case a certain food is off-limits because of interactions with treatment or other concerns.) And if you’re a friend or family member of someone with cancer and wondering how you can help, consider bringing over a meal starring these ingredients.
Tomato paste or sauce
Not only are tomato-based sauces high in vitamin C, but tomatoes help mask the unpleasant mouth taste some cancer patients get while undergoing chemotherapy, says Carolyn Lammersfeld, RD, certified specialist in oncology nutrition and vice president of integrative medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Go for plain sauces without spices, which are easier to get down and keep down. (Avoid tomato products if you have mouth sores.)
Salmon, tuna, and sardines are not only stellar sources of fatigue-fighting protein but nutritional powerhouses, too. They provide omega-3 fatty acids, which can help keep your muscles strong; vitamin B12, which your body depends on to make red blood cells; and vitamin D, a crucial component of bone health, explains Lammersfeld.
When your energy and appetite are low, turning to nutrient-dense foods can help you take in the calories you need as well as key vitamins and minerals and good fats. Smart options: a couple of handfuls of trail mix, plain nuts, or even a spoonful of nut butter.
The calcium, vitamin D, and protein found in foods from the dairy aisle will contribute to healthy bones. (Choose yogurt or kefir and you’ll replenish your good gut bacteria as well.) Vegan or just don’t like the taste of milk? Sip calcium-fortified orange juice, rice milk, or soy milk.
Lean chicken and turkey
Because they’re bland, they’re easy to eat and digest, but they still pack plenty of protein. Lean poultry is a better choice than red meat, which may increase inflammation and contribute to chronic conditions such as heart disease.
Dark green leafy veggies
Broccoli, kale, romaine lettuce, spinach, watercress, and other greens offer calcium to strengthen your bones, folate and iron to pump up your blood cell production, and magnesium, which is essential for many bodily functions but often becomes low during treatment, says Lammersfeld.
Chickpeas and beans
These mighty legumes contain high levels of protein, which protect your muscles while supplying you with steady energy so you stave off exhaustion, says Rossi.
It’s not a myth: Ginger really does help fight nausea, a side effect of chemotherapy and some medications. Adding grated ginger to foods or tea may help ease nausea not completely relieved by antiemetics, says Lammersfeld.