The holidays are traditionally a time spent with family and friends while enjoying great food. Treasured recipes, special dishes, and holiday specific cuisines carry nostalgic and comforting memories of times gone by. It is a season for feasting and parties. But for mesothelioma patients and survivors, the holidays can be a frustrating time of identifying food choices that are healthy and fun, yet unlikely to exacerbate symptoms related to cancer diagnoses and treatment plans.
People living with or recovering from cancer have specific nutrient needs compared to the average population. The body often requires higher protein or calorie intake for repair and recovery. Its ability to tolerate and utilize different nutrients may change throughout the treatment process. While the holidays can be a tempting time to eat whatever sounds good, it is important to remember that diet choices will have an impact on how cancer patients feel, both physically and psychologically. Tracy Major, a registered dietitian and ACE Certified Health Coach, makes the following recommendations for cancer patients and their families who seek to make the holidays as enjoyable and healthful as possible.
Type of Cancer Treatment
The type of cancer treatment will alter the amount of flexibility one can have with holiday eating. A person undergoing chemotherapy should focus on eating as many immune system boosting foods as possible. Radiation treatments do “blunt trauma” to the body. Thus, increased protein consumption for tissue repair is a crucial component of the diet. For any kind of treatment plan, patients should include as many nutrient dense, whole food fruits and vegetables in their eating plans as possible.
Tip: Include foods that are rich in antioxidants, high in fiber, and full of immune boosting properties such as green leafy vegetables, orange and yellow fruits, and berries. Choose lean protein meat options such as turkey, fresh ham, or roast beef. Or, if nausea is a problem, opt for plant-based protein sources like legumes, tofu, and quinoa.
Richness of Food and Drink
Fried turkey, thick gravy, and foods heavy with butter and other fats may sound comforting, but they also have the potential to cause an upset stomach. Processed foods heavy in chemically refined ingredients can also lead to digestive problems. When patients are already physically exhausted, the added exertion of physical illness from a few heavy meals can exacerbate the problem and make recovery more difficult.
The American Cancer Society recommends refraining from or limiting alcohol for those undergoing cancer treatment to avoid potential drug/alcohol interactions. Furthermore, alcohol may only increase irritation in patients who are suffering from chemotherapy-related mouth sores.
Tip: Consider baking the turkey instead of frying. Use 1% milk and decrease the amount of butter in dishes like mashed potatoes. Try steaming veggies instead of sautéing or frying them with oils. Replace starchy foods like white potatoes and white rice with healthier options like sweet potatoes and brown rice.
People tend to eat more food during the holidays than at other times of the year. However, cancer patients need to focus on eating smaller portions, spaced out, rather than massive meals. Overeating at mealtime will contribute to physical discomfort. Avoid filling a plate with only meat and other carb-rich holiday favorites. Try to limit your high carb sides, like green bean casserole or cranberry sauce, to no more than two servings at one meal.
Tip: Consider eating according to a modified MyPlate plan with ½ non-starchy vegetables, ¼ lean protein, and ¼ carbohydrates.
Holiday cooking made from scratch is usually the best choice for cancer patients. Instead of preparing processed foods, make as much as possible using fresh, whole food ingredients. This will ensure that meals are more nutrient dense. It will also ease the body of having to expend extra energy to process artificial chemicals and overly refined nutrient-absent ingredients.
Tip: Even if you’re not used to cooking from scratch and using whole foods, it doesn’t have to be a daunting experience. A simple internet search for “recipes using whole food” will turn up a wealth of wonderful blogs and websites that are dedicated to cooking this way.
Food Safety and Preparation
The holidays are a time when patients’ families must pay extra careful attention to food safety when preparing meals. Cancer patients and survivors already have compromised immune systems. As a result, their bodies simply cannot handle a bout of food poisoning. Be diligent during food prep to ensure serving dishes and utensils are clean, food is cooked properly and maintained at appropriate temperatures, and no ingredients have passed their expiration dates.
Tip: Many cancer patients struggle with nausea and revulsion to certain foods and odors. To minimize sensitivity, serve foods in a different room than where they will be eaten.
Those who are under hospice or palliative care should be encouraged to take pleasure in whatever foods they feel like eating during the holidays. But for other cancer patients and survivors, these simple guidelines can help provide healthy, safe, and enjoyable options that promote healing and recovery.