Food Shopping for Cancer Patients

Shopping at the supermarket is a chore that can be overwhelming for anyone, especially if you have cancer or are shopping for a cancer patient.

But food can be your ally in the battle against cancer.

“Nutrition is very important before, during and after cancer treatments,” says Maria (Lupita) Townsend, a certified specialist in oncology nutrition at Baptist Hospital.

How can nutrition help during cancer treatments?
Every patient is unique and faces a different set of challenges before, during and after cancer treatments. And you should check in with your medical team before making any dramatic changes to your diet.

“Through nutrition counseling, we can help you manage the symptoms and side effects from cancer treatments,” says Karla Otero, a certified specialist in oncology nutrition at Baptist Hospital.

A healthy diet during cancer treatments could provide a number of benefits, according to the American Cancer Society. The benefits might enable you to:

• Maintain strength, energy and your weight.
• Reduce the risk of contracting infections.
• Recover and heal faster.
• Have a better tolerance for the side-effects related to cancer treatments.

Where can you find the best nutrition in the supermarket?
“Start with the perimeter of the store—the outer sections. That’s where the fresh produce is located,” Ms. Otero says, referring to fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat.

Look for a variety of colors when selecting fruits and vegetables, but be cautious about stocking up on fruit and vegetable juices. Those beverages lack fiber and often contain added sugar and sodium.

Other guidelines:
• Eat vegetables as snacks.
• Add fruits on yogurt or cereals.
• Eat five or more servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruits every day.

What is the difference between starchy and non-starchy vegetables?
Starchy vegetables include potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut squash, corn and peas, and are a good source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. But starchy vegetables are denser in calories and carbohydrates, relative to non-starchy vegetables. So stick to reasonable portions of starchy vegetables.

Non-starchy vegetables are:
• Low in calories and carbohydrates.
• Good source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber.
• Suitable for eating in larger quantities.

What are phytochemicals?
“Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are plant compounds like carotenoids, lycopene, resveratrol, and phytosterols that are thought to have health-protecting qualities. They are found in plant products such as fruits, vegetable, and teas,” according to the American Cancer Society.

Here’s a quick color guide for fruits and veggies and the phytochemicals linked to each group:

Red (Lycopene): tomatoes, tomato products, pink grapefruit, watermelon.
• Red/Purple (Anthocyanins, Polyphenols): berries, grapes, red wine, plums. • Orange (Alfa and Beta Carotene): carrots, mangoes, pumpkin.
Orange/Yellow (Beta cryptoxanthin, flavonoids): cantaloupe, peaches, oranges, papaya, nectarines, citrus.
Yellow/Green (Lutein, Zeaxanthin): spinach, avocado, honeydew, collard and turnip greens.
Green (Sulforaphanes, Indoles): cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts.
White /Green (Allyl sulfides): leeks, onion, garlic, chives.

“Put color on your plate,” Ms. Townsend says. “For each meal, eat a variety of foods, and control your portion size.”

How important are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates provide the energy the body needs for physical activities and the functioning of your vital organs. “The best sources of carbohydrates – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – also supply needed vitamins and minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients to the body’s cells,” according to the American Cancer Society.

What about protein?
Protein helps to grow and repair our body tissue, while boosting our immune system, according to cancer specialists.

“After surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy, extra protein is usually needed to heal tissues and help fight infection,” according to the American Cancer Society. “Good sources of protein include fish, poultry, lean red meat, eggs, low-fat dairy products, nuts and nut butters, dried beans, peas and lentils, and soy foods.”

• Choose lean proteins:
– Chicken breast, turkey and fish.
– Ground turkey: packaging should read “white” or “breast” meat.
– Good choices of fish: Alaskan salmon, herring, sardines, black cod (sablefish), halibut, lake trout (rich in omega-3 fatty acids).

Remember to vary your protein choices by adding non-animal proteins such as beans, lentils and chickpeas, medical experts say.

Any tips for dealing with treatment side effects?
Nausea is one of the most common side effects from different cancer treatments, Ms. Otero says. You can minimize nausea by:

• Avoiding greasy or spicy foods.
• Eating small, but frequent meals.
• Drinking ginger tea.

General considerations:

  • Allow yourself more time than usual for shopping.
  • Carefully read product labels, including the Nutrition Facts and the ingredient list.
  • Don’t be fooled by serving size and container size.

“My best advice? Eat before going to the grocery store. Otherwise, you’re not going to be focused on making healthy choices because you’ll feel hungry,” Ms. Townsend says.

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