Gastrointestinal cancers include cancers of the colon, rectum, stomach, and oesophagus. Although several factors contribute to their development, research shows that diet plays a significant role. Consuming a diet high in processed and red meats, fried and fatty foods, sugary foods and drinks, and alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of these cancers. Conversely, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, probiotics, and prebiotics can significantly reduce the cancer risk. Our blog provides a comprehensive list of foods to choose and avoid for managing gastrointestinal cancers.
However, cancer treatments for the gastrointestinal tract can also lead to nutrition issues, such as malnutrition, due to various side effects, including loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and early satiety. By understanding the connection between diet and gastrointestinal cancers, individuals can make informed decisions about the foods to consume in order to manage these cancers.
How Do Gastric Cancers Impact Nutrition?
People with gastric cancer often experience eating and digestion difficulties that can affect their nutrition. These problems may stem from several factors, including:
- Side effects of cancer treatment such as loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing and digesting, nausea, vomiting, etc
- Removal of a portion of the gastrointestinal tract as part of the cancer treatment, which can make it challenging to consume food normally
- Cancer symptoms such as loss of appetite and feeling full even after eating small meals can also impact a person’s nutrition
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What Actions Can You Take During These Situations?
Consult an oncology dietitian to receive a personalized diet plan. The dietitian can evaluate the symptoms or side effects you are experiencing, such as loss of appetite, nausea, weight loss, diarrhoea, constipation, or any other gastrointestinal-related side effects, and design a tailored plan for you. However, we provide a general outline of recommended and restricted foods for individuals with gastrointestinal issues.
Dietary Recommendations for Managing Gastrointestinal Cancers:
When it comes to managing gastrointestinal cancers, making the right food choices can make a big difference. Here are some general guidelines for the types of foods to eat and avoid:
Foods to Eat:
Fruits & vegetables: Consume a variety of fruits and vegetables that are rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which can help support the immune system and fight off infections. It is recommended to consume at least 3 to 4 servings of fruits and vegetables each day to promote optimal nutrition and support the immune system.
- Berries such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, which are high in antioxidants and fibre
- Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, which are rich in folate, vitamins A and K, and minerals like calcium and iron
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, which are high in fibre and antioxidants
- Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits, which are high in vitamin C and other antioxidants
- Tomatoes, rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer
Whole grains & millets: Whole grains are high in fibre and nutrients that help with digestion and prevent constipation. These grains help maintain bowel regularity, provide sustained energy, and contain important nutrients such as B vitamins and minerals like iron and magnesium. But some gastrointestinal cancer patients may experience difficulty in digesting certain whole grains and millets, so it is best to consult an oncology dietitian to determine which grains are best for the individual’s specific needs.
Examples: Whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, barley, whole wheat pasta, and oatmeal.
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Lean proteins: Lean proteins are important for a gastrointestinal cancer patient as they help build and repair tissues, boost the immune system, and prevent muscle loss.
- Skinless poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Fish (salmon, tuna, cod, haddock, etc.)
- Beans and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, etc.)
- Soy products (tofu, edamame, tempeh (made up of fermented soybeans)
- Eggs (preferably egg whites)
- Low-fat dairy products (yoghurt, milk, cheese)
Gastrointestinal cancer patients should avoid or limit high-fat meats, such as beef, pork, and lamb, as well as processed meats like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs, as they have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Healthy fats: Healthy fats help reduce inflammation in the body and provide important nutrients for overall health. However, it is important to consume them in moderation as they are high in calories.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and sardines), flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats: Found in olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds. These fats are good for heart health and may help reduce inflammation.
- Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs): Found in coconut oil, MCT oil, and dairy products. MCTs are easily digested and may provide a source of energy for those experiencing fatigue during cancer treatment.
Check out the Indian Anti-inflammatory Meal Plan for Lowering Your Cancer Risk.
Probiotics and prebiotics: Probiotics are live bacteria that provide health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. These can help support the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
Examples: Fermented foods such as yoghurt and kefir
Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Examples: Bananas, garlic, onions, asparagus, oats, and apples.
Gastrointestinal cancer patients should consume a variety of probiotics and prebiotics to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. This can help improve digestion, boost immunity, and reduce inflammation. It is recommended to consume at least one serving of probiotic-rich food and one serving of prebiotic-rich food per day. However, patients should consult with their oncology dietitian before adding any new food to their diet to ensure it is safe and appropriate for their individual needs.
Foods to Avoid:
Processed & red meats: These meats contain high amounts of fat and can be difficult to digest, leading to digestive discomfort. Processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats also contain preservatives that may increase the risk of cancer.
Ex: Beef, pork, lamb, and cured meats.
Fried & fatty foods: These foods can be difficult to digest and can aggravate gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.
Ex: Fried chicken, french fries, doughnuts, and potato chips.
Sugary foods & beverages: High sugar intake can worsen gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea and can also contribute to weight gain and inflammation.
Ex: Soda, candy, pastries, and desserts.
Alcohol: Alcohol can irritate the gastrointestinal tract and cause inflammation, leading to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. It can also increase the risk of cancer.
Ex: Beer, wine, and liquor.
Spicy foods: Spicy foods can irritate the digestive tract and worsen symptoms such as heartburn, nausea, and diarrhoea.
Ex: Hot peppers, curry, and chilli.
To better manage your symptoms and enhance your nutritional status during gastrointestinal cancer treatment, it is crucial to eliminate these foods from your diet. Nonetheless, seeking guidance from an oncology dietitian is necessary to design a customized nutrition plan that accommodates your unique requirements and preferences. Moreover, the dietitian will evaluate the side effects you are experiencing and create a tailored diet plan throughout the treatment period.
- Don’t skip meals
- Aim to have smaller meals or snacks approximately 6 times per day. This can be simpler than attempting to consume 2 to 3 larger meals daily.
- Opt for foods that are rich in calories and proteins. You can boost the calorie and protein content of meals by adding whole milk or nuts or paneer to cooked cereals or soups, incorporating sauces and gravies on meats and vegetables, or adding margarine to potatoes.
- If solid foods are not an option or if you have difficulty eating them, consider consuming high-calorie, high-protein beverages such as shakes, smoothies, or commercial liquid supplements. Alternatively, you can try semi-solid foods like pudding or yoghurt. It is also recommended to drink high-calorie, high-protein beverages between meals in small amounts.
- Keep a variety of nutritious foods that are high in protein and calories, as well as quick and easy snacks, readily available. This way, you can easily grab a snack or meal when you need to. Good options to have on hand include milk or milkshakes, peanut butter, eggs, nuts, yoghurt, and puddings.
- Avoid drinking fluids during meals, particularly carbonated (fizzy) drinks, as they can quickly fill up the stomach. Instead, consume high-calorie or high-protein fluids in the intervals between meals.
Quick Tips for Incorporating a Healthy Diet:
Meal Planning and Preparation: Plan your meals ahead of time and prepare healthy snacks and meals in advance. This helps you avoid unhealthy choices when you’re short on time or hungry.
Mindful Eating and Portion Control: Practice mindful eating by slowing down, savouring your food, and paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues. This will help you avoid overeating and make healthier choices.
Hydration and Physical Activity: Drink plenty of water and incorporate regular physical activity into your routine. Staying hydrated and getting enough exercise can help support the digestive system. It is advisable to consult your doctor to obtain appropriate exercises if you have undergone surgery.
Seeking Professional Support and Guidance: Consider consulting a dietitian or other healthcare professional who can provide personalised guidance and support as you make changes to your diet and lifestyle. Remember that small changes over time can add up to big improvements in your overall health and well-being.
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