Having lung cancer—and the ups and downs of treatment, stress and lifestyle changes that often come with it—can throw a wrench into healthy eating habits. But getting proper nutrition during lung cancer treatment is especially important, because eating the right kinds of foods can help you feel better and stay stronger.

Because March is National Nutrition Month, it's a great time to remember the role nutrition plays in our health, particularly the importance of proper nutrition during lung cancer treatment.

"Good nutrition is critical for managing cancer and cancer treatment," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics." The goal of eating right is to help keep you strong and nourished, to successfully manage your cancer treatment, prevent muscle and bone loss, help you fight infection, allow your body to recover and heal, and see an overall improvement in quality of life."

According to Sheth, cancer can change a person's nutritional needs in many ways. For example:

  • You may experience side effects that disrupt your digestive system.
  • Some medications can make you feel nauseous and certain foods taste unappealing.
  • Some treatments or side effects from certain drugs can make it painful to swallow.
  • Steroids given before and after treatments can affect your blood sugar.
  • Cancer can affect how your body uses food (Although it might seem like you are eating enough, your body may not be absorbing nutrients appropriately, explains Sheth.)

With all that's going on, it can be hard to meet your nutritional needs. "Cancer and cancer treatment can affect your sense of taste, smell, appetite and even the ability to absorb appropriate nutrients from your food," says Sheth.

Some of the biggest challenges are closely related to the side effects of treatment, but some simple tips can help you address certain side effects:

  • If you have a small appetite:
    "Try eating small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day instead of three big meals," says Sheth. You can schedule reminders so you remember to eat regularly. To make the most of your small meals and snacks, make sure they are nutrient dense—i.e., high calorie, high protein. For example:
    • Instead of having toast with butter, go for toast with peanut butter or cottage cheese.
    • Keep ready-to-eat options on hand, such as trail mix with dried fruit and nuts or a parfait with low-fat Greek yogurt, fruit and granola.
    • Supplemental beverages (like Ensure or Boost) are quick and easy as well. "You can even make your own version at home with protein powder to cut back on cost," Sheth adds.
  • If you experience nausea:
    Sheth says to try eating cold foods, reducing your fat intake and steering clear of foods with strong odors. "Try to avoid eating your favorite food when feeling nauseated as this may turn you off it."
  • If you feel fatigued/exhausted:
    Try to rest when you can, move and get physically active when able," says Sheth. She also suggests asking for help with shopping and meal prep, getting adequate sleep and rest, and staying hydrated. 
  • If you have trouble swallowing:
    Talk to your doctor about prescription or over the counter medication that can ease the pain in your mouth or throat. Stick to high-caloric liquids like milkshakes or smoothies. Stay away from spicy foods or foods with a lot of acid.

Each person's nutritional needs during lung cancer are different, and sometimes finding the right diet that delivers proper nutrition is a trial-and-error process. Along with your doctor, a nutrition expert can help you find a plan that works for you.

"Consider meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) for a full assessment and evaluation before you start treatment," explains Sheth. "An RDN can provide a customized plan that includes overall calorie and protein goals. They can also monitor you throughout your treatment and after to ensure adequate [nutrition] and help you cope with side effects."

Be sure to talk to your doctor about your nutrition needs and visit it our nutrition and lung cancer section to learn more about lung cancer nutrition goals.

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