The holiday season is fast approaching, and food is often at the center of the festivities. While many look forward to tables covered in extravagant main dishes, desserts, and festive drinks, these gatherings can be challenging for those battling cancer.
With so many calorie-dense and rich foods on the table, is it possible for cancer patients to prioritize their healthy nutritional needs while also enjoying their favorite holiday dining traditions? Is it possible to provide a plentiful table that meets the needs of all our loved ones? The answer is yes!
The importance of healthy eating when fighting cancer
Proper nutrition plays a vital role during cancer treatment. What you eat before, during and after treatment is important to maintain strength, reduce the risk of infection, and allow the body to repair itself. Diet recommendations for patients undergoing treatment include:
• Eat plenty of lean protein and calories to help the body repair tissues.
• Enter “good fats”, such as those found in vegetable oils and seafood, that help the body protect tissues and carry vitamins through the bloodstream.
• Consume nutrient-rich carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which provide energy and promote organ health.
• Drink plenty of water to keep the body hydrated for proper cell function.
It is not always easy to follow a healthy eating plan when undergoing treatment. Some patients have difficulty eating or digesting foods, or have other obstacles such as loss of appetite, dry mouth, changes in the taste or smell of foods, sore mouth and throat, nausea, diarrhea or constipation.
How to maintain balanced nutrition during the holidays
While the holidays provide more opportunities to break away from a healthy diet, balance can still be included in holiday cooking and eating. Whether you are a cancer patient or hosting a loved one undergoing treatment, here are ways to improve seasonal dishes to support proper nutrition:
• Introduce fresh foods instead of processed foods. Salads with seasonal ingredients, fresh vegetables, and fruit trays are a great option; One important exception is if you have been asked to follow neutropenia precautions.
• Consume wholegrain bread instead of processed rolls or crackers.
• Choose lean proteins, such as chicken or fish, rather than red meat, such as steak or pork.
• Limit or avoid alcohol intake. Switch at least one serving of water or other non-alcoholic beverage for each serving of alcohol.
• Do you like mashed potatoes? Try a combination of half a potato and half mashed cauliflower or kale, and swap out heavy cream for tangy, fat-free Greek yogurt.
• Seasonal vegetables, including squash or sweet potatoes, are sweet and savory cubes toasted with olive oil, salt, rosemary or your favorite herbs.
• Cook with “good fats,” such as vegetable or olive oil, rather than butter or animal fats that are high in saturated or trans fats.
• Replace apple juice with oil, ghee or butter in baked goods.
• For reduced appetite or difficulty swallowing, arrange for your favorite foods to be distributed in smaller portions throughout the day.
• Ensure that all foods are properly washed, prepared and cooked and leftovers are stored properly, as cancer patients may have a weakened immune system and be more susceptible to food-borne illnesses.
• Practice the “dish method”. Fill half the plate with non-starchy vegetables like salad, the other quarter with lean protein, and the remaining quarter with nutritious, filling starches like whole-grain bread, sweet potatoes, or beans.
• As always, respect the food choices of others, so that everyone feels welcome.
While the holiday season can be stressful as a cancer patient or as the host of a loved one with cancer, it is possible to enjoy and/or serve healthy and emotionally satisfying meals for holiday festivities, with a little planning and foresight.
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