Cancer Care

Holidays Can Bring Nutrition Challenges for Those Touched by Cancer

Published: Nov. 18, 2019

It’s that time of year again when we’re launched into the holiday season.

Our schedules seem to fill up with year-end commitments, gatherings with family and friends, and lots of travel. We also anticipate the special foods of the holiday season, like homemade cookies, grandma’s famous mashed potatoes and gravy, and locally purchased brown sugar-glazed ham.

But this can be an especially difficult time of year for those in cancer treatment or in survivorship. Nutrition concerns often take center stage, especially with more family around.

As an oncology dietitian, I’m happy to address these concerns with patients undergoing cancer treatment, those in survivorship and family members and friends. Below are tips and ideas that can help.


Enjoy the food – within reason

The American Institute for Cancer Research’s (AICR) nutrition recommendations are consistent for cancer prevention and survivorship. But as we all know, following nutrition guidelines can be a challenge, especially during the holidays. A realistic approach to living healthier is having awareness and making small changes that are sustainable in your daily life.

For example: Consider AICR’s recommendation to limit red meat to 12-18 ounces per week and avoid all processed meats (bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs and deli meat). Not exactly ideal for the holidays, right? When you know you’ll be attending a gathering with these options available, focus on making other meals meatless during the week. By increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, you can benefit from their fiber and phytochemical content – which can lower your cancer risk.

AICR’s website provides lots of plant-based recipes to try. Don’t be afraid to try something new, and take advantage of the dietary variety in-season produce can provide.


Feed your need to move

Another recommendation to consider is exercise. This time of year, we can become more sedentary due to cold weather, travel and increased time at home. By doing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, you may decrease your cancer risk. Another option is to perform 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week. You can further boost your body’s prevention efforts by exercising 45-60 minutes each day.
There are many ways to increase your activity. You might try:


When eating is a challenge

Active treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of the two can come with individualized side effects such as nausea, difficulty chewing or swallowing, loss of taste, changes to sense of smell and decreased appetite.

I often recommend that patients in treatment always have a backup food option that can be taken on the go. An example is liquid nutrition supplements, like Boost or Ensure, which contain substantial amounts of vital calories and protein. If possible, family and friends can also help by preparing food items for the patient as fatigue increases or changes to taste and smell occur. It’s extremely important to follow safe food-handling guidelines and preparation in this case. 


Find the right balance

During this holiday season, remember the importance of taking care of yourself and loved ones. Nutrition plays a large role in your current and long-term health, so strive to find sustainable solutions. And above all, remember that the holidays – including food – are meant to be enjoyed.

More resources

About the Author

Gina Woodruff is a registered dietitian and licensed medical nutrition therapist who specializes in oncology nutrition. Whether working with patients before, during or after their cancer treatments, Woodruff strives to go above and beyond for them and their families.

See more articles from Gina Woodruff, RD, LMNT, CSO
Photo of Gina Woodruff, RD, LMNT