Nutrition for Children with Cancer and Their Families

Nutrition Month Banner stating Eat Right!

National Nutrition Month is the perfect time to talk about how caregivers can provide the best nutrition for children undergoing cancer treatment. Let’s separate fact from fiction, check sources carefully, and read between the lines regarding food and nutrition.

The Power of Fruits and Vegetables!

“It is now widely believed that the actions of the antioxidant nutrients alone do not explain the observed health benefits of diets rich in fruits and vegetables, because taken alone, the individual antioxidants studied in clinical trials do not appear to have consistent preventive effects,” says Ru Hai Lu from the department of nutritional science at Cornell University. In other words, unlike supplements, it’s the interaction of these compounds found in whole foods that is responsible for their many health benefits. According to Ru Hai Lu, “the additive and synergistic effects of phytochemicals (also known as phytonutrients) in fruits and vegetables are responsible for these potent antioxidants and anticancer activities.” The combination of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and fiber in food is complex. No supplement can substitute for all the benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Let’s Talk Phytonutrients in Food

Phytonutrients are natural compounds found in plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grain products, and legumes. These plant compounds have beneficial effects working with other essential nutrients to promote good health. They help prevent damage to cells throughout the body; many have shown positive effects on the immune system and hormones. They also act as antibacterial or antiviral agents, reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Phytonutrients are nature’s natural defense and provide powerful antioxidants.

Common phytonutrients include carotenoids such as lutein, flavonoids, coumarins, idoles, isoflavones, lignans, organosulfures and plant sterols. “With the discovery of bioactive components beyond the essential nutrients of foods, a new era of nutritional, medical, botanical, physiologic, and analytical sciences has unfolded”, according to B. M. Burton-Freeman and H. D. Sesso.

Phytonutrient-Rich Foods

  • Red, orange and yellow vegetables and fruit (such as tomatoes, carrots, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, peaches, mangos, melons, citrus fruits, and berries
  • Dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, kale, bok choy, broccoli, Swiss chard, and romaine lettuce)
  • Garlic, onions, chives, and leeks
  • Whole grain products (such as brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, barley, wheat berries, and whole wheat and whole grain cereals)
  • Nuts and seeds (such as walnuts, almonds, sunflower, sesame, and flax seeds)
  • Legumes (such as dried beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, and soy products)
  • Tea and Coffee (such as green tea, black tea, and other herbal teas)
  • Dark chocolate

With chemical-based farming, even these foods need your careful attention and research. Organic foods must be given the proper emphasis when eating and cooking with phytonutrient-rich foods. Choose your food wisely!  Learn how the foods you select are farmed and raised. It matters!

Difficulty of Providing Nutrients for Cancer Kids

Providing the synergy of whole foods like fruits and vegetables necessary for healing is difficult for cancer children. After a stem cell transplant for leukemia, for example, hospital nutritionists must make sure the food provided is safe and free of bacteria and fungus. Food free of bacteria and fungus is critical to the fragile and compromised immune system just after transplant. Meal preparation often precludes fresh fruits and vegetables being given to the child due to the potential of bacteria and fungus.

Initial regimens after a transplant, or particularly concentrated chemo treatments, often include nutrition by I.V. in measured calorie and nutrient dosing. Low bacteria diets provided in hospitals are mainly processed foods. At this stage, managing adequate calorie and protein intake is the focus. Once a child can consume food by mouth, safety outweighs the opportunity to provide various fresh organic fruits and vegetables. It is recommended that bone marrow transplant patients avoid eating food from restaurants for 100 days, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Solving the Dilemma of Healthy Eating

How can we get kids to eat what they need? It is essential for the child to get proper nutrition when discharged from the hospital, and caregivers are encouraged to measure calorie intake. It can be challenging to get even healthy children to eat a diet high in phytonutrients, never mind children during and after cancer treatment. Let’s look at ways to provide fresh organic fruits and vegetables to promote good health achievable. Parents and caregivers need to nourish themselves during this time more than ever to maintain their strength and good health.

Ideas for Easy, Healthy Snacks

Encourage the whole family to consume more organic produce. It can be effortless to incorporate as much as 5-11 servings of phytonutrients daily with a little advanced preparation.

  • Have a bowl of cleaned and dried berries nearby to munch on
  • Have a bowl of fruit such as oranges and apples, and bananas easily accessible
  • A plate of sliced Persian cucumbers with fresh organic carrot sticks
  • Celery sticks cut up and a dish of healthy peanut butter nearby
  • A mason jar of a few favorite nuts such as almonds, walnuts
  • A container of living butter lettuce that lasts a long time is an easy way to create a salad and has a higher nutrient content than you may think.
  • Have a container of a variety of cherry tomatoes at the ready
  • Cook some corn on the cob, remove the kernels, stored in the fridge to add to salads
  • Blanch some string beans to add to a salad or just munch on ready in the fridge.
  • keep a few radishes cleaned and cut up for snacking or putting in a salad
  • Have avocado at the ready to cut up for a salad or spread on toast.
  • Make your own vinaigrette dressing, or use a little olive oil, lemon, and salt.
  • Add olives to the salad
  • Easy protein additions include cooked and cubed chicken or baked salmon.

Here to Serve Helps!

At Here to Serve, we recognize the simple act of food preparation of fresh organic phytonutrients can be overwhelming. Even caregivers need to take time to nourish themselves in healthy ways. The house cleaning and laundry and constant attention to your child can overwhelm parents. This is where Here to Serve comes in. Let us help you get the resources you need to keep you and your child on the right track for healing. We help organize friends to bring containers of fresh organic phytonutrients and much more. This will help the temptation to reach for the bags and boxes of quick and easy empty calorie snacks.

By Amanda Enciso