Healthy Habits for Life

Every day, you make choices about the food you eat, yet you probably don’t consider how each sandwich or dessert may affect your future health. Every bite counts, especially after a cancer diagnosis. Scientists continue to link the effects of good – and poor – nutrition to overall wellness and the risk of disease (including cancer). Some research indicates that better nutrition might even promote faster healing from surgeries and other invasive procedures and increase the success rate of cancer treatment.

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, you may feel as if you don’t have much control in your life, and nutrition may be the last thing on your mind. Although you can’t prevent some types of cancer and health issues, you can control most of your lifestyle choices. Learn as much as you can about your diagnosis and how nutrition can be a valuable part of treatment. Use your knowledge to partner with your health care team. While they lead the way medically, you can focus on a proper diet, getting physical exercise and achieving emotional wellness. This approach will serve you well after treatment into survivorship, too.

Components of Good Nutrition

Nutrition, the taking in and use of food and other nourishing material by the body, is a three-part process:

  1. Food or drink is consumed.
  2. The body breaks down the food or drink into nutrients.
  3. The nutrients travel through the bloodstream to different parts of the body where they are used as “fuel” and for many other purposes.

Your nutrition goals should include getting the nutrients your body needs, maintaining a healthy weight and keeping up an appropriate level of physical activity. Your doctor or a dietitian will evaluate your current nutritional status so you have a baseline, or starting point, before treatment begins for monitoring purposes. This is important because cancer treatment and its side effects may affect your appetite and your ability to eat. Sometimes, even though you eat all the right things, the effects of treatment make it harder for your body to absorb essential nutrients.

A well-balanced diet includes eating and drinking enough of the foods and liquids that have important nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat and water) the body needs. Choosing smart lifestyle habits, such as not smoking and stopping or limiting alcohol consumption, is extremely helpful in preparing your body for managing treatment. Lastly, don’t ignore the connection between nutrient-dense foods and your emotional health. A healthy diet can help improve your mood and help you stay positive for what’s ahead.

The key nutrients your body needs include proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and water.

Proteins are necessary for growth, immune system health and body tissue repair. You can get protein from poultry, lean red meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy products, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, nut butters and soy.

Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source and are necessary for organ function (brain, kidney, etc.), intestinal health and physical activity.

  • Simple carbohydrates contain sugars, such as lactose and fructose, which are easily broken down by the body. They are found in foods with both naturally occurring and added sugars, such as fruits, fruit juices, milk, non-starchy vegetables, processed foods, candy, desserts and sodas.
  • Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down into simple sugars and may help stabilize your blood sugar, keep you feeling satisfied after eating and maintain your energy at an even level. Oatmeal, black beans, lentils, broccoli and sweet potatoes are complex carbohydrates.

Fats are used by the body to store energy, transport certain vitamins throughout the bloodstream and cushion the organs. Fats are a great source of calories, especially in times of decreased appetite. Including a bit more fat in your diet can help increase your caloric intake.

Fiber is the part of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains that cannot be digested. The fiber in food may help prevent cancer. Dietary fiber can help you feel full faster. Sources of fiber include starchy vegetables, breads and pastas (made with whole grains), brown rice, cereals, beans, lentils, quinoa, amaranth (a gluten-free grain) and oats.

Vitamins are nutrients that the body needs in small amounts to function and stay healthy. Sources of vitamins are plant and animal food products and dietary supplements. Some vitamins are made in the human body from food products, such as vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E.

Minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and iron, are nutrients that are needed in small amounts to keep the body healthy.

Try to eat a variety of foods from all of the food groups because no single food has all of the vitamins and nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy diet. It’s also important to understand the difference between energy-dense foods and nutrient-dense foods. Energy-dense foods are loaded with calories, typically from sugar and fat, and may not have a lot of nutrients. Candy is energy-dense. Nutrient-dense foods have high amounts of nutrients, but may not have a lot of calories, such as spinach. Some foods, such as cheese, can be both.


Water makes up about 60 percent of your body weight, and your body needs water to function. While daily fluid needs vary from person to person based on health, activity level and geographic area, the general recommendation is about 10 cups of water per day for men and about 8 cups for women. Some water does come from the foods you eat (e.g., fruits, vegetables, soup, ice cream, etc.) and from other fluids such as coffee and tea, but you still need to drink water to ensure your body cells get the fluid they need. Do your best to consume more fluids, including water, if you are experiencing side effects such as diarrhea or vomiting. These side effects may cause you to lose more fluid, increasing your risk for dehydration. If diarrhea is severe, you may not be able to absorb plain water, so a specialized oral rehydration solution may be recommended. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for more information.