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Nutrition and the Caregiver

Caring for a spouse, parent, or family member with cancer can be a rewarding experience, especially when you know that your care makes a positive impact on your loved one. Today, in the United States, it is estimated that there are 65.7 million family caregivers and that 21% of U.S. households contain at least one family caregiver [i].


Caregiver Burden

It has been well documented that cancer caregivers stress often causes caregivers to ignore their own health and medical needs. The stress and emotional strain of caring for a loved one can have a significant impact on one’s immune system. Stress decreases the body’s ability to fight infection, contributes to risk for heart disease and stroke, and causes unnecessary weight gain or loss, depression, anxiety, and fatigue, which potentially can impair your ability to care for your loved one.

In a study of caregivers after a family member’s diagnosis (1.5 to 6 years post diagnosis), caregivers were found to continue the behaviors that negatively impact health including over half not meeting physical activity guidelines, 71% being obese, 40% eating only a quarter of the recommended number of daily servings of fruit and vegetables and over one-third drinking alcohol [ii].

Thus, as a caregiver it is important not to ignore your own nutritional needs. By improving your own access to healthy, nutritious meals you will not only be setting a good example for your loved one, but you will also be improving your own health and stamina to sustain the demands that are ahead of you. Proper nutrition with nutrient-dense foods such as poultry, meats, eggs, beans, nuts, dairy, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will not only provide your body with well-balanced nutrition, but also contain valuable disease-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals. Remember, the same easy to prepare meals and snacks that you organize for your loved one can be helpful to you as well.


Dealing with picky patients

At the same time, caregiving can also be a challenge, especially when it comes to ensuring that your loved one is receiving the proper nutrition. Here are some suggestions to help you as the caregiver to improve your loved ones’ enjoyment and tolerance to foods:

  •  Have patience. Our loved ones have good and bad days. Don’t let their fluctuations in eating be a reason for a conflict. Continue to encourage and be supportive throughout the difficult times.  And, have patience with and be kind to yourself recognizing that this is a difficult situation for you too.
  • Avoid large portions. Large quantities of food may seem overwhelming, and spoil your loved-one’s limited appetite. Some find it more appealing to use appetizer-sized plates rather than large dinner plates.
  • Ensure proper fluid intake. Make sure that they have adequate fluids by keeping a pitcher of water or favorite drink handy.
  • Make meals look appetizing. You can accent their plate with a fruit or vegetable garnish, coconut flakes or melon wedge.
  • Ensure food safety. Keep the refrigerator well-stocked with easy to prepare meals and snacks and remove old or spoiled food from the fridge.
  • Make the dining experience pleasant. Playing soft music, lighting candles or talking to them about the day’s events while they are eating will often take their mind off of not feeling well.


[i] Son, K.Y., Park, S.M., Lee, C.H., et al. (2010).  Behavioral risk factors and use of preventive screening services among spousal caregivers of cancer patients. Support Care in Cancer, 19(7): 919-27.  PMID: 20445996.
[ii] Beesley, V.L., Prince, M.A., Webb, P.M. (2010). Loss of Lifestyle: Health Behaviour and Weight Changes after Becoming a Caregiver of a Family Member Diagnoses with Ovarian Cancer. Support Care in Cancer, (Epub ahead of print). PMID: 21125296.
Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Jessica is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). She studied nutrition at Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. She obtained her Master's degree through the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Jessica has worked in inpatient and outpatient oncology settings since 2001 in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Jessica is in charge of all operations including clinical and culinary operations ranging from menu development to evidence-based website content, relationships with registered dietitians and social workers and developing processes and protocols for intake, management and outcomes analysis of patients.

  1. The family shuold actively participate in their senior’s home care. It is true that home care offers a reassuring and personalized setting. But before hiring a home care agency always check if they have a which gives the family an oversight on how care is being administered.

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