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Nutrition and Cancer: What’s the Connection?

Registered dietitian Erin Levine, RD, offers nutrition advice for cancer prevention and treatment

Nutrition and Cancer: What’s the Connection?

Everyone knows that eating well is an important part of a happy and healthy life. Along with being tied to a longer lifespan, proper nutrition is also an important factor for preventing life-threatening conditions and helping those facing them benefit the most from treatment.

One illness that is closely tied to diet and nutrition is cancer.

“Proper nutrition is also important during cancer treatment. If you aren’t able to get the right nutrients during your care journey, you might not be able to tolerate the medications or other treatments you need.” - Erin Levine, RD

“Eating healthy foods and maintaining a healthy weight are two of the best things you can do to prevent many types of cancer,” says registered dietitian Erin Levine, RD, with Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute. “Proper nutrition is also important during cancer treatment. If you aren’t able to get the right nutrients during your care journey, you might not be able to tolerate the medications or other treatments you need.”

To help you lower your cancer risk and support those undergoing cancer treatment, Levine shares some tips she commonly gives her patients.

Nutrition tips for cancer prevention

When it comes to nutrition and diet, there are many ways to decrease your cancer risk:

  • Get to and stay at a healthy weight: Obesity is linked to many types of cancer, including esophageal, breast, colorectal, uterine, gallbladder, stomach, kidney, liver, ovarian, pancreatic and thyroid cancers (as well as multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer). This is because obesity is linked to chronic inflammation and higher levels of certain hormones, which can contribute to the development and growth of cancer in the body. Your risk is higher the more you weigh and the longer you are obese.
  • Exercise regularly and avoid sugary drinks: Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week can help you get to and maintain a healthy weight. Also, while research hasn’t found that sugar causes cancer, regularly drinking sugary beverages can lead to obesity.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, whole grains and beans: These plant-based foods are associated with a lower risk for cancer. In general, you should eat at least five servings of vegetables and/or fruits per day, and half of the grains you eat in a day should be whole grains (like whole wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal or quinoa). 
  • Limit how much red meat you eat:  Red meats are high in heme iron, which is known to increase cancer risk if eaten regularly. Because of this, it’s best to eat less than 18 ounces of beef, lamb, pork, veal, venison and goat per week.
  • Avoid processed meats as much as possible: Processed meats, including sausages, ham, hot dogs, jerky, deli meats and pepperoni, are high in nitrates (which can damage the lining of the gut and lead to gastrointestinal cancers). According to Levine, it’s best to not eat any of these products, but if you can’t avoid them, limit them as much as you can.
  • Watch your alcohol intake: The human body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer. Because of this, it’s best to limit the number of drinks you consume (two for men and one for women per day).

Nutrition tips for those undergoing cancer treatment

While undergoing cancer treatment, staying properly nourished is incredibly important.

“Getting proper nutrition is key for keeping your strength, energy and immunity up during your treatments. It also helps keep you from becoming dehydrated and can lessen any side effects you experience,” Levine says. “If you aren’t able to stay properly nourished, you might need to take a break from your treatment, which can be discouraging or even affect your outcome.”

Some of Levine’s nutrition tips for cancer patients include:

  • Eating small and frequent meals: A common side effect of many cancer treatments is decreased appetite. If you find it hard to eat three regular-sized meals daily, try eating smaller portions throughout the day. Also, if your appetite isn’t as strong as it used to be, don’t wait until you are hungry to eat and try to look at eating as a part of your overall treatment plan.
  • F​​​​​ocusing on protein: Protein can help you maintain muscle mass, replenish blood cells and fight off infection. Try to include as many protein-rich foods (like fish, poultry, beans, nuts or lentils) in your meals as possible.
  • Keeping up your hydration: Drinking enough water helps flush toxins out of the body and reduces treatment side effects (including nausea, weakness, constipation and fatigue). The amount of water that is best for you to drink per day depends on many factors, so it’s best to talk to your care team for recommendations.
  • Finding new ways to eat fruits and vegetables: Side effects like nausea, vomiting, mouth sores and diarrhea can make it hard to tolerate these foods during treatment. If that’s the case, don’t be too concerned. Instead, focus on eating protein-rich foods and incorporate fruits and vegetables into meals however you can (like blended into a smoothie, soup or sauce).

Cancer Nutrition Services at Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute

The nutrition specialists at Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute provide personalized care to any of the Cancer Institute’s patients who are looking for nutritional support on their care journey.

“Many of our registered dietitians are specifically certified in oncology nutrition, and all of us have vast experience working with cancer patients,” Levine says. “We offer diet education to help you manage your nutrition-related side effects, a personalized analysis of your diet, assessment for and management of cancer-related malnutrition and personalized nutrition plans specific to your needs.”

To learn more about Cancer Nutrition Services at Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute, call 888-402-LVHN (5846) or learn more below:

Cancer Nutrition Services


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