Why is nutrition important in cancer treatment?

Nutrition assists cancer patients in keeping a healthy weight, maintaining body strength, keeping the body tissues healthy as well as assists in decreasing the side effects during and after treatment.

Cancer and cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiology may affect taste, appetite and the bodies ability to absorb various nutrients. This can result in malnutrition, increased risk of infections and it can also affect the treatment process.

Good nutrition and cancer

Eating a well-balanced diet means including various foods to obtain the maximum amount of nutrients to help fight cancer.


Protein is important in building muscle. Cancer patients need good sources of protein to prevent the loss of muscle mass. Good sources of protein include eggs; fish, poultry, lean red meat, beans, legumes, lentils, nuts & seeds, nut butters and soya products.

  • Milk can be added to porridge/cereal in place of water
  • Eggs can be eaten for breakfast or used in salads or sandwiches
  • Diced meat can be added to pastas, soups or sandwiches
  • Beans, legumes or lentils can be added to stews, curries, rice dishes, salads or soups


Carbohydrates provide the body with energy. Good sources of these include starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains as these provide the body with different vitamins and minerals as well as fibre (eg: Sweet potato, butternut, products made from brown/whole-wheat flour). These should be consumed in moderation, to keep to a fist size portion.


Fats are also a rich source of energy for the body and it also assists in the absorption of some vitamins. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal sources like meat, chicken, butter or cheese.  Consumption should be limited as these increase the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds and some plant oils. Although these are considered as healthy fats, it should be consumed in moderation.


These are essential for strengthening the immune system which is important for cancer patients. A healthy diet will ensure that one consumes adequate vitamins and minerals.

  • Vegetables can be added to soups, stews or curries and it makes a good salad
  • Fruits can be added to snacks or desserts eg: Plain yoghurt and chopped banana


Antioxidants attach to cancer cells and prevent them from damaging normal cells. Antioxidants include vitamin A, C, E, Selenium and Zinc. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of antioxidants.


Water is essential for life and important for many processes within the body. Often with the cancer treatment one might experience side effects like diarrhoea or vomiting which will result in a loss of water from the body. Hence it is important to keep hydrated and drink at least 8 cups of water a day. Water can be flavoured with fresh herbs or fruits.

Coping with the side effects of cancer or cancer treatment


  • Eat small frequent meals
  • Add extra protein to meals
  • Consume soups/milkshakes /smoothies
  • Eat nutritional snacks. Eg: Fruit, eggs, yoghurt, peanut butter, cheese and crackers


  • Keep hydrated. Drink lots of water. Preferably consume 1 cup after each loose stool
  • Liquids can also come from soups, non-caffeinated beverages
  • Try to eat small frequent meals and bland foods (eg: dry toast). Separate the consumption of solids and liquids


Often caused due to a decreased intake of water and/or fibre as well as due to the intake of some medications

  • Consume more water
  • Consume at least 4-5 vegetables/fruit daily
  • Consume foods high in fibre (whole grains, brown bread, brown rice
  • Increase ones physical activity levels


  • Flavour foods well
  • Avoid bitter, too salty or high fat foods
  • Use sugar-free lemon drops or gums if there is a metallic taste in your mouth
  • Choose poultry, fish or eggs in place of red meat. Add a sweet sauce to these foods
  • Choose beans, legumes, lentils
  • Consume smoothies
  • Brush your teeth and take care of your mouth as oral hygiene is important


  • Dried beans, legumes or lentils
  • Fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits
  • Whole grain products eg: All bran flakes, products made from brown/whole-wheat flour
  • Lean meats. Try to eat fish at least twice a week
  • Nuts, seeds, Avocado, healthy plant-based oil
  • Milk and milk products
  • Avoid foods high in saturated fats and sugar
  • Avoid processed foods as these have little to no nutritional value.

R. Nakhooda (RD, SA)
Dietician, Capitol Caterers