February 15, 2023
Food allergies and cancer: How to nourish yourself well during treatment
BY Cynthia DeMarco
Navigating life with a food allergy is often a challenge on its own. Throw in a cancer diagnosis on top of it, and nourishing yourself properly can get exponentially harder.
So, how do you make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need during cancer treatment if you have a food allergy? We checked in with senior clinical dietitian Beverly Rodgers for advice.
What’s the biggest challenge for cancer patients with food allergies?
As a dietitian, the challenge with many cancer patients — whether they have a food allergy or not — is: “How do I get enough energy into them so that they can make it through treatment and heal properly?”
Consuming enough calories to function well can be difficult. Cancer treatments often have side effects such as nausea or vomiting that can get in the way of retaining lean muscle mass and absorbing enough nutrients for everyday activities.
Usually, when someone has food allergies, though, they’ve had them for a long time, so they’re very aware of them. They’ll come in saying, “Look: I already can’t eat this or that. And side effects may interfere with my diet. So, what am I going to eat?”
What do you suggest when patients have food allergies?
Anyone with a food allergy is already restricted in terms of what they can eat. So, I usually recommend protein shakes as supplements between meals. Drinking these increases the amount of calories and protein you’re ingesting, so hopefully you can retain more of them to power through your day.
Most store-bought shakes are free of gluten and other common allergens like wheat, eggs and nuts that can cause people problems. But if you still can’t drink them because you’re allergic to soy or dairy, you can always make your own smoothies at home and just add protein powder.
The best part of making your own shakes and smoothies is that you control exactly what goes into them. So, you can be absolutely certain you won’t be ingesting anything that might cause you problems.
Are food allergies ever an issue with tube-feeding formula?
Not usually, no. You just have to make sure you’re aware of all the ingredients in a particular formula, so you’re not giving someone with a fish allergy a product that has fish oil in it.
When pharmaceutical companies first started making products for IV nutrition and tube feeding (or TPN, which stands for “total parenteral nutrition”), they tended to use only a certain type of fat, which was traditionally soy-based. But over time, they found that when they gave people a different combination of fats, they experienced less inflammation. So, they modified their product line to contain a lipid formula known as “SMOF,” which is roughly 6% soybean oil, 6% medium-chain triglycerides, 5% olive oil and 3% fish oil.
Other formulas are available for people who don’t want to ingest animal products or have other dietary restrictions. Fortunately, there are a lot more options for allergy-friendly products today than there used to be.
How does MD Anderson handle food allergies for patients who are hospitalized?
For us, it’s not any different than accommodating someone who keeps kosher or halal or eats a vegetarian diet. We can coordinate with the kitchen so that nothing is sent to you that contains any of your forbidden ingredients.
Just be sure to let your care team know about any food allergies you might have, so that they, in turn, can let the kitchen know. It’s the same way you’d tell your care team about any medication allergies you might have before being admitted. Both are important for us to know.
What’s the one thing patients should know about navigating cancer treatment with food allergies?
Communication is critical. If you don’t tell us about your allergies, we can’t accommodate them.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
TopicsSide Effects Treatment Nutrition
I usually recommend protein shakes as supplements between meals.
Senior Clinical Dietitian