Diet and Nutrition

Good nutrition is particularly important when children have cancer because not only are the children growing and needing all the nutrients to develop healthy organs, bones etc, their growing bodies now also have to cope with various treatments and their side effects. Some children lose weight, grow more slowly, frequently feel tired or irritable and get infections more easily. These can be signs of poor nutrition. A well nourished body helps the body to fight infections, provides a general sense of well-being which makes children feel more relaxed and helps them better able to cope with the treatments.

In the treatment of illness, in this case cancer, we have come to believe that medicine and medical technology can solve our major health problems. The role of such important factors as diet in cancer and other diseases has long been obscured by the emphasis on the conquest of these diseases through the miracles of modern medicine. Treatment, not prevention, has been the order of the day. The problems can never be solved merely by medical care. Health is determined by a variety of biological, behavioural and environmental factors. None of these is more important than the foods we eat!

When children are undergoing cancer treatment, they probably don’t feel like eating anything. Cancer treatment, with its side effects, is brutal on the body because radiation and chemotherapy kill cancer cells and healthy living cells. Children often have poor appetites after treatments as well as nausea, vomiting or mouth sores. Foods also taste and smell different. However, they have to eat, as every bite they take can be just as important as the treatments they are enduring.

Often during treatment children will seek comfort food, which, for many children usually means junk food! Do not be tempted to give in to these demands because when they stop eating healthy foods the door is opened for cancer to return as well as infections. When undergoing cancer treatments it is best to feed children easily digestible foods and beverages in as natural a form as possible which will nourish their bodies and help them to perform at optimal levels.

The goal is for children to continue to grow in height, gain weight, and otherwise develop normally while undergoing cancer treatments. This is no easy feat, but the best way is through good nutrition. For good nutrition, children must take in sufficient amounts of good quality calories, protein and other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. A well balanced diet of good quality foods is key.

“Eat to Live”

There are two fundamental principles when it comes to cancer and good nutrition:
1. Eat what God created for food
2. Eat food in a form that is healthy for the body

A healthy, balanced diet

consists of four main food groups which are grains, vegetables and fruits, proteins and lastly, fats and sugars and these should be included in the diet daily. These should be taken in 5 – 6 small meals as opposed to 2 - 3 large meals, to ensure a constant source of energy and smaller meals would be more easily tolerated by the body.

Grains (or Carbohydrates),

supply energy, vitamins, minerals and fibre and should form 50-60% of the daily food intake. These should also take the form of complex carbohydrates, such as wholewheat bread, pastas and cereals and brown rice which are low GI and give slow release energy. These also provide fibre which helps prevent constipation and very important for proper digestion. Daily intake should ideally consist of 6 – 11 servings of wholegrain bread, brown rice, pasta, potatoes, wholegrain crackers, porridge eg, oats or sugar free, wholegrain cereals.

Fruit and Vegetables

should always be as fresh as possible and washed very well, or peeled, before eating. Fruit contains simple carbohydrates that provide the quickest energy to the body and are also rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre. Daily intake should be 2 – 4 servings of preferably fresh fruit. Dried fruit is also an option, but be careful of too much sugar. If canned fruit is used it should preferably be in 100% fruit juice, but limit this to one serving.  Vegetables contain complex carbohydrates that supply fibre, vitamins and minerals and energy at a slower rate. They should preferably be served fresh and raw, as in salads, or lightly steamed. The minerals and vitamins are lost if cooked for too long and in too much water. Daily intake should be 3 – 5 servings of raw or cooked vegetable, vegetable soup or vegetable juice.


is needed to build healthy muscles and organs and is very important in healing and rebuilding damaged tissues in the body. Children with cancer should therefore eat plenty of protein, but a variety and not only animal protein. Proteins should consist of fish, chicken, meat, eggs, dried legumes, soya products, nuts and low fat dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Daily intake should be 3 - 4 servings of fish, chicken, meat, eggs, legumes, soya products, and low fat dairy products.


are a good source of energy and are essential for many of the body’s functions. It is not a good idea to limit the intake of fat and cholesterol in children younger than 2 years as they get almost half their energy from fat and need it for growth and development. Children older than 2 years should have the same amount of fats as adults, which is no more than 30% of the total daily calories.  Saturated fats which come from animal sources, eg meat, eggs, milk etc, and coconut and palm oil are less healthy than fats from most plant sources, eg seeds, nuts, olive and canola oil.


is found in most sweets, cakes, desserts and fizzy drinks. Sugar is high in ‘empty’ calories which do not contain any nutrients and weakens the immune system and causes dental decay. Limit the intake to a small amount once or twice a week.


are a very important part of a healthy diet and almost 70% of the human body is water. To maintain a healthy balance and for the body’s organs to function properly, children need to drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration. Drinking plenty of good, clean, filtered water will help the body to flush out toxins which can be harmful to health.  Fluid intake is very important when your child with cancer is receiving chemotherapy. Depending on age and size, your child should drink at least 1 – 2 litres of clean, filtered water, pure fruit juices, or rooibos tea -  avoid sugary or fizzy drinks. When your child is vomiting or has diarrhea, drinking enough fluids is important to prevent dehydration.

While having cancer treatments, children may suffer side effects such as nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, diarrhea or constipation, altered sense of taste, fatigue, poor appetite, dislike of hospital food, disruption of normal routine and this could affect your child’s nutrition. Remember that children of all ages learn very quickly to manipulate worried parents by not eating! Be patient with your child and try not to pressure your child to eat, give lots of love and emotional support and keep them hydrated.


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