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Healthy Eating During the Holidays When You or a Loved One Have Cancer

November 02, 2022

The holiday season is quickly approaching and food is often at the center of celebrations. While many look forward to tables covered in extravagant main courses, sweet desserts, and festive drinks, these gatherings can be challenging for those who are fighting cancer.

With so many rich and calorie-filled foods at the table, is it possible for cancer patients to prioritize their nutritional health needs while also enjoying their favorite holiday food traditions? Is it possible to provide a bountiful table that accommodates 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, lower the risk of infection, and allow the body to repair itself. Dietary recommendations for patients undergoing treatment include:

  • Eat plenty of lean proteins and calories to help the body repair tissue.
  • Incorporate “good fats,” such as those found in vegetable oils and seafood, which help the body protect tissue and carry vitamins through the bloodstream.
  • Consume nutrient-rich carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which supply energy and promote organ health.
  • Drink plenty of water to keep the body hydrated for proper cell function.

Following a healthy eating plan is not always easy when going through treatment. Some patients have difficulty eating or digesting foods, or experience other obstacles such as appetite loss, 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 present more opportunities to veer away from a healthy diet, it is still feasible to include balance into holiday cooking and dining. Whether you are a cancer patient or hosting a loved one undergoing treatment, here are ways to optimize seasonal dishes to support proper nutrition:

  • Include fresh rather than processed foods. Salads with seasonal ingredients, fresh vegetable and fruit trays are a great option; one important exception is if you have been asked to follow neutropenic precautions.
  • Consume whole grain breads instead of processed rolls or biscuits.
  • Choose lean proteins, such as chicken or fish, rather than red meats, like steak or pork.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol intake; alternate at least one serving of water or other nonalcoholic beverage for each serving of alcohol.
  • Love mashed potatoes? Try a mix of half potatoes and half mashed cauliflower or turnips, and swap the heavy cream for tangy, non-fat Greek yogurt.
  • Seasonal vegetables, including squash or sweet potatoes, are already sweet and taste delicious cubed and roasted with olive oil, salt, and rosemary or your favorite herbs.
  • Cook with “good fats,” such as vegetable or olive oil, instead of butter or animal fats, which are high in saturated or trans fats.
  • Substitute applesauce for oil, margarine, or butter in baked goods.
  • For limited appetite or difficulty swallowing, arrange to have your favorite foods in smaller portions spread out over the course of the day.
  • Ensure all foods are properly washed, prepared, and cooked, and store leftovers properly, as cancer patients may have impaired immune systems and be more susceptible to food-borne illnesses.
  • Practice the “plate method.” Fill one half of the plate with non-starchy vegetables such as salad, one fourth with lean protein, and the remaining fourth with a nutritious and filling carbohydrate such as whole grain bread, sweet potato, or beans.
  • As always, respect the nutritional choices of others, so all may feel welcome.

While the holiday season can be stressful as a cancer patient or as host to a loved one with cancer, it is possible to enjoy and/or provide both healthy and emotionally satisfying meals for holiday celebrations, with just a bit of planning and foresight.


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