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Nutritional Needs for Kids With Cancer

When your child is undergoing cancer treatment, a healthy diet might be the last thing on your mind. But maintaining adequate nutrition is important for kids with cancer. By eating as well as possible — even though it may be difficult — kids can keep up their strength.

It can be hard for kids with cancer to eat a balanced diet because the disease and its treatments affect appetite in many ways: Kids might have nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, or mouth sores — all common side effects of chemotherapy. Or they may have heightened sensitivity to food smells or temperatures, difficulty swallowing, changes in taste, or an inability to absorb nutrients like before.

All these things can make it hard to eat. But don't give up. You might need to get creative about how you do it, but you can help your child get the extra nutrients needed to stay strong during treatment.

Special Requirements

Every child with cancer has specific nutritional needs, so it's important to talk to a nutritionist about your child's needs. But in general, kids with cancer have an increased need for protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water.

Here are some reasons why each is important and what foods contain them.

Protein

Some experts say that a child undergoing cancer treatment may need as much as 50% more protein than a healthy child of the same age. That's because the body uses protein to grow, repair tissues, build blood cells, and replenish the immune system. Getting enough protein can help your child heal faster from the effects of radiation and chemotherapy, while also helping to prevent infections.

Cheese, eggs, milk, yogurt, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, peanut butter, nuts, lentils, and soy are all good sources of protein.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body's fuel, providing energy for cells and helping to maintain organ function. When you consider how much energy the body of a child with cancer must expend on fighting disease, it's not surprising that an increase in carbs is necessary.

Good sources of carbs include breads, pasta, potatoes, rice, cereals, fruits, corn, and beans. Whole-grain varieties of breads and pastas are always best because they add fiber, which is essential to maintaining digestive health and preventing constipation, another common side effect of cancer treatment.

Fats

Fats help the body store energy, insulate body tissues, and carry certain vitamins throughout the bloodstream. Fats also are dense in calories, which is important to a child who might be losing weight during treatment.

Not all fats are created equal, though. Unsaturated fats that are found in fish, nuts, olive oil, and vegetables like avocados are much healthier than saturated fats and trans fats that are found in red meats and greasy, fried foods.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals play an important role in growth and development, and they also help the body absorb nutrients. But some kids with cancer may not be getting enough of them — either because of a poor diet or because certain cancer medicines actually deplete the body of essential vitamins (like calcium and vitamin D). If this is the case, the doctor may recommend a multivitamin during treatment. Never give your child a supplement unless your doctor says it's OK, since some vitamins can interfere with treatment.

Water

Water is, by far, the body's most important nutrient. After all, our bodies are about 75% water. Water helps with nearly every bodily function, aiding in digestion, metabolizing fat, flushing toxins from the body, and maintaining body temperature.

Kids undergoing cancer treatment often lose a lot of water from vomiting, diarrhea, or by simply not drinking enough. So it's important for your child to get plenty of fluids every day. Tap, filtered, or bottled water is best, but your child also can get necessary fluids from other sources like sports drinks, juices (100% juice is best), and clear broths. In addition to preventing dehydration, getting enough fluids helps prevent constipation, a condition that is likely to make your child even less inclined to eat.

If you're unsure how much fluid is necessary to keep your child well hydrated, consult your doctor or nutritionist, who can tell you how many ounces to aim for each day. 

Tips for Helping Your Child Eat

Helping your child maintain quality nutrition during cancer treatment might require some trial and error and creative thinking. Try these tips:

  • Feed your child smaller, more frequent meals. Also serve meals on a smaller plate, since a large plate of food can seem daunting to someone with a decreased appetite.
  • Always have food on hand. Whether it's a breakfast bar, a liquid nutrition drink or shake, crackers, or fruit, keep snacks handy in case your child suddenly gets hungry.
  • Try blander foods. If your child seems sensitive to strong smells or tastes, stick to plain meals like breads, pastas, rice, and broth-type soups.
  • Experiment with food temperatures. Many people undergoing cancer treatment can tolerate foods that are served at room temperature rather than very hot or too cold.   
  • Avoid acidic foods. If mouth sores are a problem, stay away from acidic foods like orange juice, lemonade, and tomatoes.
  • Make foods easier to swallow. If swallowing is difficult, try pureed foods, soups, shakes, or smoothies. A straw may help them go down easier.
  • Don't offer liquids with meals. Serve drinks in between meals, instead of with meals, so that your child doesn't fill up on fluids and has an appetite to eat.
  • Beware of spreading germs. Always remember to wash your hands well before handling food, as kids with cancer are at high risk for infection. In some cases, doctors may advise a child to avoid raw foods altogether.

If Your Child Has an Increased Appetite

Although most kids undergoing cancer treatment tend to lose weight due to a suppressed appetite, others — particularly those prescribed steroid medications — experience increased appetites, fluid retention, and weight gain.

In this case, you may need to limit salt intake by avoiding fast foods, processed foods, and snacks like chips and pretzels. You also might need to monitor your child's intake of soda and sweets, which are both loaded with empty calories.

It can be tricky to keep your child eating well during treatment, but it's important to try. Kids who maintain adequate nutrition and hydration are better able to tolerate and stay on schedule for treatments, steer clear of infections, keep up their current weight, and stay strong enough to participate in activities they enjoy — all of which increase their chances for the best possible outcome.

Reviewed by: Joanne Quillen, MSN, PNP-BC
Date reviewed: December 2009

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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