Easy All-Purpose Cancer Meal Starting Point

Asked about how a patient should eat, virtually every doctor or nurse in oncology is going to respond: "eat a balanced diet, but high in calories." The specifics might vary based on the type of cancer, the patient's history, or the form of treatment being tried. But the general, broad strokes are based on two needs. A patient needs to keep his or her weight up so that the body can withstand the more difficult treatments, and a patient needs to meet essential nutritional requirements. The latter part is quite easy if a good balance is found -- enough protein to maintain muscle mass, enough vitamins for healthy cellular activity, enough calories in the form of fats, carbs or sugars to fuel the patient through the process. It sounds easy at first, but many patients find it difficult to plan meals that are both palatable and fulfill this need for balance. There is a relatively easy approach, however, that can work for a majority of the patient's meals.

The Many Benefits of Salads

Start with a salad.

That may seem overly simplistic, but salads can be incredibly versatile that are easily customizable to accommodate a patient's taste and texture requirements while also setting up nutritional success. The first step is to stop looking at salads as a side-dish and instead focus on them as the core of the meal. Some experimenting will be necessary, but it sets up a path toward success for the patient who wants to be as healthy as possible while undergoing therapy.

Because a patient's oncologist is likely going to suggest high-protein, high-calorie diets, it offers the patient a free pass to explore any and all toppings that might run counter to the idea of salads as a weight loss tool. Think of heavy, creamy dressings, large slices of avocado, the crunch of extra croutons, hard boiled eggs, crumbled bacon, nuts, chunks of chicken or steak, shredded cheeses, or for those seeking vegetarian or vegan options, pieces of seitan and tofu. (In fact, more protein options are available from specialty grocers, including a variety of products made from peas, jackfruit, lentils, beans and more.)

Dining out, many restaurants offer standards like the chef's, cobb, southwest, and Caesar, that traditionally come with meat options. But there is something available to suit virtually every palate, whether the desire is for sweet, savory, sour, or spicey. Tostada salad, Chinese chicken salad, salads with fruit or root vegetables; the options are only limited by imagination and availability.

But it is not only about taste. Some patients might crave a particular sort of mouth-feel. When taste is suppressed, the appetite may also diminish. Countering with a pleasant textural experience might help to at least make eating more interesting. Adding crunch is a great way to do this, and plenty of vegetables are up to the task, from carrots to kohlrabi, radishes to rhubarb. There are as many texture profiles as there are taste profiles.

Turning Salads Into Hot Meals

For those who feel that a hot meal is needed, salads can still be a solid starting point. Pasta tossed in oil and garlic goes well on top of a bed of arugula. Steamed chicken or freshly grilled steak sliced over virtually any type of lettuce provides a combination of comfort-food warmth with a fresh and invigorating crunch. Add in the options of rice, quinoa, farrow, or any cooked grain, and a salad quickly becomes a hearty and nutritious meal that has "balance" built right into it.

And one of the best parts of this approach is that it offers the patient an opportunity to be constantly flexible in his or her approach to what works. Finding enjoyment in food can be difficult when a treatment like chemotherapy is altering the body's "normal" experience. One day, everything may suddenly taste bitter -- but a quick change of dressing might mask any unpleasantness. Some days, sweet or creamy might feel repulsive, and a simple chopped salad of dark greens and garden vegetables may be the perfect foil. If the stomach is feeling unruly, perhaps a starch-heavy helping of rice and potatoes could be mixed in. And it is probably worth mentioning that as needed, it is very easy to switch gears from salad to soup. The base is right there -- the only thing that needs to be added is water or broth and a little bit of time. Of course, it helps to make the decision before pouring on the dressing.

Eating well during cancer treatment does not have to be difficult. With a base plan in place, customizing meals becomes quick and easy. Fighting the lack of appetite, or even the aversion to food that sometimes comes with treatment, is not always easy. But with a little effort and a little creativity, achieving the high-protein, high-calorie, balanced meal is within most patients' reach. And of course, there is always dessert.

Editor's Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

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