Navigating your diet during the holidays while going through treatment

Cancer, Nutrition
Nov 22, 2022

LCRP clinical dietitian offers tips to enjoy the foods of the holidays even if you are experiencing any lingering treatment symptoms

It’s the most wonderful time of the year with potlucks, parties, pastries and more. Sounds delightful – unless you are going through cancer treatment that leaves you feeling nauseous and tired or you just simply don’t enjoy food anymore.

We asked one of our clinical dietitians at the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion what advice we should offer to patients going through cancer treatment who might not be looking forward to the foods of the holidays. Erica Abbarno, outpatient oncology dietitian at our LCRP Bluffton Campus penned the following article for us.

By Erica Abbarno, licensed dietitian LCRP dietitian Erica Abbarno

The holidays bring family and friends together along with an array of foods and drinks. However, as someone who is going through treatment, you or your loved one may be feeling fatigued, have a decreased appetite and/or experiencing nutrition impact symptoms such as taste changes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation.

How can you or your loved one continue to enjoy the holiday season despite these symptoms? Here’s some advice based on the symptoms you may have.

Experiencing a lack of appetite

With a lack of appetite, it may be more difficult to enjoy the meals your loved ones make. The foods that once sounded enjoyable to you, may not be at this time. This is OK. Try to have a small meal/snack prior to the gathering in order to ensure you are supplying your body with energy. Bring a high calorie, protein rich meal or appetizer to share and enjoy with others such as hummus, guacamole and crackers, tender meats, bean casseroles or pumpkin dessert.

This could be a useful time to capitalize on the utilization of oral nutrition supplements. Drink one prior to, on the way or at the event.

If there are foods that you would be interested in, but you know you will not eat the portion you used to have, choose a small plate to fill rather than a large one.

Experiencing nausea

This would be another opportunity to eat a small meal/snack prior to the gathering. More specifically, choose a bland food to avoid triggering nausea.

Consider leaning into the comfort foods for the season such as turkey, sweet potato, soft green beans, pumpkin, noodles, bread and potatoes.  

Bring ginger ale, ginger candies, ginger tea or peppermint tea with you to subside your nausea or upset stomach at the event. Take your anti-emetics as prescribed.

Certain smells may also trigger nausea – bring your own scented mist or essential oil roll-on such as lavender, peppermint or eucalyptus, which can minimize or neutralize unwanted scents. If possible, avoid being around the area where foods are being prepared if you are experiencing smell aversions.

Experiencing taste changes

Do foods taste metallic, like cardboard, or simply have no taste at all? Rinse your mouth with baking soda plus water plus salt to cleanse your palate prior to eating. Bring your own spices, herbs or condiments to add flavor to foods which don’t have any flavor to you. Bring plastic utensils to eat with, if foods taste metallic.

These are times when you may enjoy foods that you had not before. Take this opportunity to try new foods.

Ask your dietitian if bringing Miracle Fruit/Berries with you to assist with taste changes will be beneficial for you.

Experiencing diarrhea

To help manage diarrhea, avoid caffeine, spicy foods and fatty, greasy and fried foods. Choose blander foods as well as those with higher amounts of soluble fiber. This kind of fiber dissolves in water and includes pectin and gums which help to bulk up stools. Examples include barley, oats, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, bananas, strawberries, beans, lentils and green beans.

If you experience diarrhea during the event, be sure to have your anti-diarrhea medications on hand as well as electrolyte rich beverages to replenish those which are lost in your stool.

Experiencing fatigue

Research continues to show inclusion of physical activity is extremely beneficial in combating fatigue experienced by those undergoing cancer treatments. If it is warm enough, take a short walk with loved ones.

Gatherings during this time may increase stress on top of other symptoms being experienced. Use the tips here to build your toolkit so that you can still have the opportunity to enjoy your traditional meals and time with family. If traditional meals are not enjoyable, your family and friends may be more than happy to begin new traditions with you and help cater to your needs during this time. 

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