There’s no special menu plan that will cure or even treat lung cancer. But you can give yourself a leg up during treatment and beyond by picking smart eats that will support your body and help keep up your strength.
Instead of thinking of food as a “cancer fighter,” it can be helpful — and maybe less overwhelming — to step back and think about getting good overall nutrition, says Alicia Romano, a registered dietitian at Tufts Medical Center and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
“Eating a well-balanced diet has the potential to aid in treatment tolerance, maintain strength during treatment, and speed recovering,” she says.
A key point to remember, though, is that the “right” diet isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription. The foods that work well for your type and stage of lung cancer may not work for everyone else with the disease.
“Every lung cancer is different,” says Zhaoping Li, MD. She’s chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an investigator at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“The best diet for you depends on your personal goals. If you’re about to have surgery for lung cancer, you have different nutritional needs than when you’re recovering from treatment.”
Still, there are general guidelines you can follow as you make your diet choices.
Foods to Choose
As you plan meals and grocery shop, here are some nutrition tips to take with you:
Get enough protein. Your body needs protein for cell and tissue repair. “Protein is the building block of your immune system and essential for your organs to be in good shape,” Li says. She recommends aiming for about 20 grams per meal. For lean meats such as chicken, fish, or turkey, this means a piece about the size of a deck of cards. Other sources of protein include:
- Low-fat dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Soy foods (miso, tofu, edamame)
Put plants on your plate. Colorful fruits and vegetables add powerful antioxidants and phytonutrients to your diet, which can help ward off cell damage. Whether your fruits and veggies are raw or cooked, the key is variety. Fill up on about five different servings a day. For most fruits and vegetables, a serving is about 1 cup; for leafy greens, it’s 3 cups.
Go with whole grains. You need carbohydrates to help keep your energy up. Get your carbs from whole-grain sources instead of the refined kind. Good options include:
Include healthy fats. All fats aren’t created equal. Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats help support your brain and nervous system and reduce inflammation in your body. These choices fit the bill:
Keep it simple. You don’t need to overhaul your entire diet, Romano says. “If you’re feeling well — no treatment side effects, no weight loss or poor appetite — focus on adding quality nutrition foods to your diet.” She suggests easy changes like adding a piece of fruit as a snack, subbing half your grains for whole grains, or choosing fish as a protein option once a week instead of meat.
Eating Tips for Treatment Side Effects
Some of the most common side effects of lung cancer treatments include nausea, lack of appetite, weight loss, dehydration, and fatigue.
You can help manage these discomforts with your diet:
For nausea: Eat frequent small meals. If strong smells and odors set off your nausea, choose bland and low-fat foods.
For lack of appetite: Eat snack-sized portions every few hours, about four to six times a day. Add calorie-dense foods to all your meals, such as peanut butter, olive oil, avocado, butter, or cheese. These will give you a lot of calories in a small volume. Ask your doctor or dietitian about adding liquid nutrition supplements to help add calories to your diet.
For weight/muscle loss: Getting enough calories is key. Small meals more often and calorie-dense foods help, as well as protein-rich foods such as eggs, poultry, fish, dairy, meats, peanut butter, and tofu.
For fatigue: Prep freezer meals when you have energy, so you have ready-made dishes you can simply heat and eat. Keep nutritious snacks on hand for when meals feel like too much. Stock up on granola bars, nuts, cottage or string cheese, peanut butter, yogurt, and fruit for east-to-grab healthy calories in a pinch.
For dehydration: Aim for at least 64 ounces of decaffeinated fluids each day. If you can’t seem to stomach plain water, try sports drinks, juice, or milk.