Maintaining a healthy weight is a critical goal, but may be a huge challenge at the most vital times.
Cancer and cancer treatment often lead to unintentional weight loss. Weight loss can stem from decreased intake due to side effects such as poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration.[i] Together, a weight loss of 10% of body weight, decreased intake of <75% of the required calories per day, and systemic inflammation are associated with an adverse prognosis.[ii] Whether you are currently going through treatment or have already gone through it, taking the steps below will help you maintain muscle mass and aid in appropriate weight gain that is healthy and sustainable.
Bring on the nutritious, energy-dense foods
When your goal is weight gain, each meal and snack should include calorie-dense foods. This is especially important when appetite isn’t up to par. A few bites of nutrient-dense quiche equates to more calories than a few bites of salad. Try adding energy-dense foods to your daily meals and snacks such as trail mix, granola, milk, yogurt, cheeses, nuts, seeds, and nut butters. Keep them handy!
Bulk up meals & include protein to maintain muscle mass
Protein plays an integral role in maintaining muscle mass. Aim to include protein with as many meals and snacks as you can. Nutritious sources of protein include chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, beans/legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Get creative with your meals! Make sure to eat the biggest meal of the day when your appetite is strongest. If it’s been hard to eat full meals, try 5-6 smaller meals throughout the day, and drink fluids between meals to save room for the calories. To add nutritious calories to foods that you already have been eating, enhance the flavor with easy strategies. For breakfast, mix nut butter, fruit, milk, chia, and/or flax seeds into oatmeal or cereal. Eat yogurt, but make sure it’s Greek yogurt due to the higher protein content. This can be topped with nuts and wheat germ, and flavored with berries or granola. For more savory meals and snacks, add cheese and/or avocado to sandwiches, cook your omelets with cheese, and make sure to keep a container of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge for a quick easy protein packed snack. Use olive oil when cooking vegetables, fish, or meat, and make an oil dip to smear onto a toasted baguette. Top salads with olive oil and nuts and hard boiled eggs, and drink whole milk with meals or snacks and incorporate it when making creamed soups. Snacking is essential, and a good high calorie option is trail mix and peanut butter crackers.[iii]
Make nutrient-dense smoothies
Making sure you are getting enough calories can be a challenge sometimes. Smoothies can help with that! When we drink our calories, it’s easier to get more of them into our systems before that full feeling kicks in. Energy-dense smoothies can play a central role in healthy weight gain, and can be strategic options to supplement in between meals. To create a nutritious, energy-dense smoothie, start with a base of dairy or non-dairy milk, yogurt, nut butter, and oats. Next, add fruit (berries, banana) and vegetables (spinach, kale). Lastly, blend in the seeds (chia, flax, hemp). With this smoothie formula, you can make endless flavorful combinations that are important to have handy. Make your own or try the one below! Add a scoop of protein powder if recommended by the Medical Doctor (MD) or the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to boost your total protein and calorie intake.
Berry Nut Smoothie Recipe
- 1 cup whole milk
- ½ cup Greek yogurt
- 2 Tablespoons almond butter
- ¼ cup oats
- ½ banana
- ½ cup blueberries
- 1 Tablespoon chia seeds
- Combine milk, yogurt, almond butter, and oats in blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
- Slice banana and add to blender. Thoroughly wash blueberries, add, and blend.
- Blend in chia seeds and serve in glass.
- Enjoy or store in fridge for later.
- This is a thick smoothie! Add water if you prefer a thinner texture.
NUTRITIONAL DATA: Per serving: 704 calories, 38 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 66 grams carbohydrate, 14 grams dietary fiber, 32 grams protein
More on muscle mass gain in Part III! And learn strategies on achieving a healthy body weight in Part I!
[i] (2015, June 8). Weight Changes. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/eating-problems/weight-changes.html#written_by
[ii] Fearon KC, Voss AC, Hustead DS. Definition of cancer cachexia: effect of weight loss, reduced food intake, and systemic inflammation on functional status and prognosis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83:1345-50.
[iii] Increasing calories and protein. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2013)