Eating Well Part 1: the challenges

Nutrition can be a bit of a minefield these days, whether you are coping with an illness or not, but possibly even more so when it comes to supporting yourself during cancer treatment. On the one hand, the official advice seems to boil down to follow a standard healthy diet, and possibly add high calorie foods if you are struggling to maintain your weight during treatment. On the other, you have people from various camps recommending going vegan, or ketogenic, or green juicing six times a day. Even as someone with a professional background in nutrition (but no specialised knowledge or experience of supporting people with cancer), I find it can be a source of great anxiety and can only imagine how confused someone with standard nutritional knowledge might feel.

My personal philosophy about nutrition in general is there is no one perfect diet that is suitable for everyone. Whether it be due to physical factors such as variations in our genetic make-up, composition of our gut bacteria, or the way our immune system is programmed, or other equally important considerations such as personal preferences and cultural beliefs, different things suit different people. In a way this can be very empowering, but it also often means a lot of experimentation to find what suits you.

Working out what to eat during cancer treatment adds a further layer of complication, as so many aspects can affect digestion and appetite. Whether it be the side effects of chemo, the drugs that go alongside it, antibiotics, or a physical obstruction to your digestive system, your normal eating habits may go completely out the window.

I also think it’s really important to consider the psychological and emotional aspects of changing your diet. While there may be benefits to adding or removing certain foods in theory, if you struggle or find things overly restrictive you can end up creating stress and anxiety that outweighs the benefit of the changes. So my philosophy is ‘be kind to yourself’. If you decide to make a change, do it gradually, make sure you have enough alternatives that you know you can eat on hand before removing anything, and don’t beat yourself up if the only food you can face eating one day is completely the opposite of what you’re aiming for.

Coming up next time – finding individualised nutritional support.

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