There is no time more important for eating nutrient dense foods than during the treatment of and recovery from cancer.
The illness, along with the treatment, can affect the ability to eat and how the body responds to food.
Anorexia (loss of appetite) and cachexia (loss of weight and muscle mass) can occur, reducing emotional and physical resilience. Calories from minimally processed foods are essential to help form enzymes and hormones necessary to build and protect skeletal muscle tissue.
Nausea can be tricky to negotiate. However, ginger or raw apple cider vinegar may help combat it. Try ginger root in hot or sparkling water with some raw apple cider vinegar and a touch of stevia for sweetness. I recommend a sweetener, such as stevia as, unlike sugar, it’s not going to affect blood sugar and energy and stress hormone levels. Manuka honey is another alternative, ideally consumed with a source of fat or protein (such as nuts) to help reduce the impact on blood sugar.
Bread is an obvious go-to for people who require something to help settle the stomach. (Marmite on toast, anyone?) It’s no secret that this wouldn’t be my first recommendation, but a nut and seed-based loaf would be an excellent alternative that could be sliced and stored in the freezer. Roasted kumara, potato and pumpkin pieces with salt, herbs and olive oil or coconut oil is another easy eating option.
Foods to eat
Flavonoids and phytochemicals in plant-based foods have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which help promote recovery and repair of cell tissue. Though we cannot definitively say, these are believed to be important for their anticarcinogenic properties. Regardless, it makes sense to include herbs and spices such as garlic, black cumin, cloves, cinnamon, thyme, allspices, bay leaves, mustard, rosemary and turmeric in cooked dishes, salads, smoothies and pesto or dips.
Omega 3 fats, found in fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, are important — these anti-inflammatory fats help balance others that promote inflammation and cell damage. They may not be popular choices with teenagers, however, particularly for those struggling with appetite. Try making the fish into fritters or including it on a homemade pizza with other toppings. Good ways to mask the flavour.
Depending on budget, you could also include omega 3-enriched eggs in the diet. Eggs are also one of the richest sources of choline — an important nutrient for methylation in the body, which is the key process for cell repair and generation and detoxification. If eggs do not appeal, then making banana based pancakes will deliver the health benefits in a more appetising, teen-friendly way.
Try Delaney Mes’ simple banana pancakes.
I have already written a column on bone broth — you'll find it here. Have a read if you have any questions as to why it would be important (hint: collagen, a component of broth, makes up 30 per cent of our body's protein and building blocks). It can be homemade but also increasingly health food stores and even some cafes, such as Mairangi Bay's Sip Kitchen, sell it. Use it as the base for soups and add cooked protein such as chicken or fish, blended kumara or pumpkin and fresh herbs. The addition of fat (blended raw nuts, more butter or olive oil) can increase overall calorie intake when the body needs it but when appetite is low.
As a nutritionist, one of the most difficult things is getting clients to eat the most nutritious foods. Yes, I’m talking about liver.
Organic livers are available through butchers, from Farro Fresh or health food stores. Liver is high in the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K) and iron, zinc, folate and co Q10 (an antioxidant) but is a difficult sell. However, if blended to a pate or added to mince-based dishes (meatballs, bolognese sauce, meatloaf) no one need know that it is even there. If your goal is to provide the most nutritious food where possible, then this is an automatic inclusion.
Smoothies are a great vehicle for nutrient-rich foods. A decent smoothie-maker will blend ingredients properly to ensure the end result is appetising. Greens, herbs and other vegetables can be blended (hidden) and nuts, avocado, coconut milk and coconut flakes are a good way to add fat. If these form the base, then add unsweetened cocoa powder to make it chocolatey and a small frozen banana or berries for fruit.
Try making your own icecream. Blend frozen banana and coconut cream as a base for coconut, dark chocolate chips, chia seeds and peanut butter.
When young people crave "treat" food (partly due to unstable blood sugar), pre-made bread and muffin mixes that are gluten-free, contain minimal ingredients and are less refined, can be handy (look for Wholefood House or Hunter Gatherer Gourmet). Like any occasional foods, these should not be the mainstay of anyone's diet, but are better options than heavily processed and sugared alternatives.
Families going through cancer often try to minimise all risk factors associated with the disease and may want to eat only organic produce to reduce exposure to pesticides. However, organic is more expensive than commercially grown and budgets may prohibit it.
If there is the option, the best produce to eat organically can be found on the Dirty Dozen, a list of fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticides. When buying organic is not an option, washing produce in a basin of water with a little added apple cider vinegar (leave to soak for 10 minutes) can remove a significant proportion of pesticide residue that standard washing does not.
Enjoy your mealtimes
Importantly, it’s likely not possible to follow all of my recommendations for various reasons. It’s what you do typically that makes the difference, so if it all falls by the wayside and it is cheese on toast for dinner, do not despair. Food is about more than just nutrients, and meals should be pleasurable and enjoyed.
The environment really affects our ability to heal, so trying to create relaxed mealtimes where family and loved ones can eat together is another key element to recovery.
Any step in this direction is a step in the right direction, so never forget that.
Through her subscription service of meal plans and nutritional support, nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. To find out more and to sign up, visit mikkiwilliden.com