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How to Gain Weight During Cancer Treatment

chicken kabobs with black olives

Losing too much weight is a problem for many people with cancer

contributed by Nancy Burke, R.D., Danielle Karsies, M.S., R.D., and Melissa Shannon-Hagen, R.D., CSO, U-M Cancer Center Symptom Management and Supportive Care Program

It’s important to include enough carbohydrates, protein and fat in your meals to maintain weight during treatments because too much weight loss can actually slow down/delay treatment. But, side effects of treatment, including loss of appetite, can make it challenging to eat enough food to get the calories your body needs.

This is particularly true for patients with oral, throat or other types of head and neck cancers. For these patients, the cancer itself, as well as the treatment, changes the ability and desire to eat. This is true for other cancer patients, since chemoradiation treatment often has side effects that impact appetite as well as how foods taste. It's also important to understand that cancer changes in the way the body uses food for energy.

If you think of food as the fuel your body needs to function, the importance of eating becomes clear. There are different types of food that provide different nutrients and all are important fuels for your body:

  • Protein is an essential nutrient for healing, tissue maintenance and growth. Your body requires protein to maintain its muscle mass; people who keep their muscle mass generally have fewer side effects during cancer treatment and recover better.
  • Carbohydrates and fat help to provide increased calories your body needs during treatment.

Tips to get more protein:

  • Switch from skim milk to whole milk, if you’re struggling with weight loss
  • Melt cheese on sandwiches, stir it into scrambled eggs or grate on top of soups, starches or meats
  • Add cottage or ricotta cheese to fruits and vegetables, egg dishes or desserts
  • Get an extra boost by mixing powdered milk into milkshakes and smoothies
  • Spread peanut butter and other nutbased spreads on sandwiches, toast and vegetables or swirl them into shakes, smoothies, yogurt and soft ice cream
  • Sprinkle nuts over cereal, salads, vegetables, pancakes or fruit. Think of it as a crunchy topping
  • Add chopped meat to salads, omelets and quiches
  • Eat more beans and tofu. Hummus is high in protein and can be spread on breads and vegetables

Tips to get more carbohydrates and fat:

  • Eat cereals with 6 grams fiber per serving: oatmeal, raisin bran, shredded wheat, Grape Nuts and Kashi
  • Find bread with 3 grams fiber per slice
  • Use whole wheat pastas -- and add cream sauces
  • Mix legumes, lentils and beans into chicken or beef broth
  • Cook vegetables to tenderness in olive oil
  • Turn fruit into smoothies or sauces, such as apple sauce

Also consider drinking nutritional supplements, like Boost or Ensure. Several brands and flavors are available. They also can be mixed with fruits, ice cream and syrups to make milkshakes. Carnation 560, an ultra-high calorie supplement, is available in the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center Pharmacy.

Tips to make eating easier for head and neck cancer patients, specifically:

  • Dry mouth? drink plenty of fluids. Choose moist, soft foods. Limit spicy or hot foods. Cut food into small pieces and mix with sauces and gravies
  • Sore mouth & throat? Avoid dry, crunchy, citrus, spicy or salty foods. Eat luke warm or cool foods. Use sauces and gravies or milk to moisten foods
  • Food tastes different? Use plastic utensils for metallic tastes. Rinse your mouth with alcohol free mouthwash or a baking soda and salt water mix before each meal. If foods taste salty add sugar. If foods taste sweet add salt.
  • Difficulty chewing? Choose soft foods. Cut foods into small pieces or puree foods with gravies or sauces. Drink protein rich smoothies and shakes.

U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center patients: if you are losing weight or have additional questions, the Registered Dietitian Nutritionists in the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center can help you. Talk with your physician to request a referral and call 1-877-907-0859 to make an appointment.

Get more nutrition tips and advice from U-M Cancer Nutrition Services

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