September 19, 2023

Maintaining good nutrition during cancer treatment

Farmer's market vendor handing someone a basked of tomatoes and cucumbers

Maintaining proper nutrition and healthy eating habits are crucial for patients going through cancer treatment.

Caitlyn Leiva, a registered dietitian at the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center, works with patients throughout their care with individualized plans tailored to their needs.

“In general, adequate calories and protein are really the most important places to focus on, because cancer itself and also cancer directed treatments put increased metabolic stress on the body,” Leiva said.

Leiva is among the featured speakers at this year’s Fall Cancer Conference, “Food as Medicine,” hosted by Carbone Cancer Center. This year’s event will be held on Oct. 20 at Monona Terrace and Convention Center. See more details and register at

Malnutrition is extremely common for patients, especially if they’re dealing with side effects that impact their appetite. Patients and caregivers should talk with providers about available nutrition resources and any dietary concerns. Leiva routinely screens patients for signs they aren’t getting proper nutrition and works with them on solutions to manage side effects and encourage better eating habits.

Making a schedule to eat, and eating small meals more often, can help those who have lost their appetite or are experiencing nausea.

“Often smaller, but more frequent meals can be easier to accomplish versus three larger meals per day if people are feeling full quickly or are just not as interested in food,” she said.

For patients whose immune system is weakened, she talks about mitigating their risk of foodborne illness by cooking meats to their recommended internal temperature and thoroughly washing produce.

Leiva frequently is asked about “the best” fruit or vegetable to eat, and the answer is all of them.

“Our research really supports that getting a variety of different fruits and vegetables maximizes the benefits of phytochemicals, which are the cancer-fighting compounds in food,” Leiva said. “So aiming to increase the variety and ‘eat the rainbow’ is more of a beneficial approach versus just targeting one specific food or fruit or vegetable.”

Patients can find healthy recipe ideas through the American Institute for Cancer Research website and, a resource of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. The latter includes recipes specifically tailored to health considerations, such as anti-nausea, anti-fatigue or being easy to swallow.

For friends, family and neighbors looking to support a patient with food, Leiva said meal scheduling websites like are a great resource to organize large efforts and provide direction on what foods are currently appealing to the patient. Patients can link recipes with specific dietary considerations as ideas. Another way to support patients is by offering to grocery shop for them.

Leiva continues to work with patients post-treatment on healthy nutrition habits that may reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.

“I think a lot of times people’s relationship with food really changes during chemotherapy or other treatments, so it’s really helpful to have a regroup session after they’re done with treatment to get back on track and figure out a nutrition plan going forward,” she said.