It is no secret that cancer treatments—or even the cancer itself—can have a negative effect on residents’ appetites, often making mealtime an everyday struggle. The cancer treatments they undergo have many side effects that affect their nutritional intake, such as loss of appetite, taste changes, nausea, and aversion to smells.
Such side effects cannot only affect what and how much a patient or resident eats, but also how stressful meal time can be. The importance of nutrition during cancer treatment, however, cannot be dismissed even during these everyday struggles. Research has shown that adequate nutrition can improve survival rates, prevent delays in treatment, and improve quality of life.
Despite these challenges and with proper guidance, mealtime does not need to be a struggle or a time of stress. With a few tweaks to any routine, eating can be a more pleasant time for cancer patients, bringing back the joy of a meal while at the same time improving their nutritional health. These five tips can help cancer patients make meals a more enjoyable and less stressful experience.
- Encourage sharing meal time with friends and family. When a resident with cancer has a poor appetite or they have debilitating fatigue, they may want to eat by themselves or away from loved ones, which commonly will result in them eating less. Sharing meals with others can take the senior’s mind off the struggle of eating and lead to a more positive mealtime experience. If one does not have anyone to eat with in person, encourage patients to talk to someone on the phone, listen to relaxing music, or even read a book or magazine to occupy their thoughts.
- Be prepared. With most cancer patients, there will be a few days during their treatment regimen when energy levels are close to normal.
On these days, make sure dietary is involved so that residents have healthy and filling meals to get them through the tough days. The same is recommended for snacks. Healthy snacks are essential to have in the refrigerator and pantry for easy access. Snacks such as peanut butter and whole-wheat crackers, trail mix, fruit with a handful of almonds, and carrots with hummus make for simple and hearty snacks when cooking is not an option. Having nutritious food on hand makes eating less complicated and overwhelming.
- Set a schedule. As with any successful routine, it is important to follow a schedule, plan ahead, and “pencil in” the events of the day.
Long-term care residents with a decreased appetite who are less motivated to eat should also consider this strategy for meal times. Some continue a standard meal pattern, such as three meals per day plus one or two snacks, while other patients have improved intake with eating five to six substantial snacks or “small meals” throughout the day.
Other caregivers find it helpful to set an alarm clock or reminder on their watch or phone to remind the resident to eat a meal or snack. Be flexible, but remember having set times to eat will improve their nutritional intake and promote a more productive meal time routine. Research has shown that following an eating schedule leads to healthier eating and improved nutritional outcomes.
- Help residents move more. Physical activity and movement can improve a person’s nutritional status, mood, and energy levels. Exercise releases endorphins, resulting in an improvement in these quality of life factors.
Of course, high-intensity exercises would not be necessary or even appropriate in most cases. But taking a walk around the facility or outdoor courtyard can help stimulate the appetite prior to a meal. Low-intensity physical activity during cancer therapy has also been shown to decrease fatigue and reduce cancer-related side effects.
- Experience mealtime. Mealtime should not just be for the taste buds. Using all five senses can enhance the taste of the foods, as well as the experience.
If the resident has smell aversion, consider a lemon infuser or other aromatherapy based around appealing food smells. See if it’s possible for a “real” plate to make the meal more visually appealing. Those with nausea could put on some soft soothing music to create a more calming tone.
Encouraging residents to think about the food experience can promote a more positive meal encounter.
Cancer takes a toll on many aspects of the patient’s life, including their appetite and desire to eat. This struggle is a common issue during treatment, often resulting in weight loss and malnutrition.
The good news is that there are ways to bring back the joy of eating. First, facilitate a meeting with an oncology registered dietitian in order to evaluate nutritional needs and help develop an individual nutritional plan.
Second, encourage residents to be involved in these tips. These can not only make a significant difference in the patient’s nutritional health, but also improve their quality of life during and after cancer treatment.
Jessica A. Iannotta is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition and the COO of Savor Health. Susan Bratton, a former Wall Street banker, is the CEO and Founder of Savor Health.