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Gaining Weight During Cancer Treatment - What You Need to Know

Gaining weight during cancer treatment is something that is not often talked about or even associated with cancer. However, gaining large amounts of weight is a really common side effect that I help a lot of people with so I thought we should chat about it here. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a life-changing experience for anyone which means dietary habits might be the last thing on your mind. Treatment varies from person to person requiring an individualized approach. For some, certain chemotherapy treatments or steroid medications can cause major changes in appetite and weight. These changes might include constantly feeling hungry, feeling nauseous without food in the stomach, or even changes in taste to prefer sweets or other carbohydrate rich foods is common.

Cancer treatments cause side effects but weight gain is not often addressed as much. While a change in appetite is common, cancer treatments can also cause extreme fatigue leading to inactivity and ultimately weight gain. It’s important to remember that restricting your diet or making dramatic changes to your diet upon a cancer diagnosis is not always the right answer. Gaining weight during cancer treatment can be managed - and some of this could include body acceptance -, and what you need to know is how best to manage these changes within your body through diet and lifestyle changes. I’ve got you.

Cravings for Carbohydrates and Sweets

Going through cancer treatment is already hard enough, and it can be made even harder if you are not listening to your body’s needs. Craving certain foods is absolutely a need. So, if you find yourself craving that piece of chocolate cake or ice cream - these are not forbidden What’s important to keep in mind is mindful eating. Mindful eating involves being in tune with your body and listening to hunger cues. That can get a bit skewed when medications and chemo are involved but cancer treatment is actually a beautiful time to consider what your body wants, what it needs and to let go of the “good” and the “bad” labels around foods. If you want an incredible resource for mindful and intuitive eating, one of my favorite podcasts in the world is dietitian run Food Psych®. Let me know if you check it out.

While it is completely necessary to indulge your cravings during treatment, there’s a balance to strike once you’re feeling better and able to focus on foods that help heal the body. High carbohydrate foods such as breads, french fries, sweets, potatoes, and pastries can quickly add up in calories. I love to find indulgences that offer some supportive benefits like fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help kick cancer to the curb. If you find yourself craving something sweet you might consider trying my Vegan Banana Chocolate Shake Treat or my Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding. This shake will curb your sweet tooth and fill you up with fiber, antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein!

Focusing on our source of carbohydrates is extremely important when it comes to cancer. Consuming a variety of fresh fruits, whole grains, beans, and lentils can really boost energy levels. These sources of high quality carbohydrates provide an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, fiber, and B vitamins that help convert our food into energy. Being aware of high quality carbs and their quantity/portion size can be extremely beneficial in maintaining your weight.

The Plate Method

For some, weight gain is a completely normal cancer treatment side effect but to see your body change in any way can be a little distressing. You’re already going through so many changes that sudden weight loss or gain can make your body not quite feel like itself. Looking into the diet and the foods you are eating is the first step in figuring out the best way to maintain your current weight. The Plate Method is a tool often used for people with diabetes to manage their intake of carbohydrates in a meal. However, I think it is very useful in planning meals that include a variety of foods in moderation. This method emphasizes portion sizes and visualizing your plate in a new way than you might be used to.

The idea of this Plate Method is to divide your plate into sections. One half of the plate is entirely filled with non starchy vegetables. These vegetables include spinach, brussel sprouts, peppers, mushrooms, leafy greens, asparagus, tomatoes just to name a few. The other half of your plate is then further divided into ¼ sections. This means ¼ of your plate is a lean protein. This can be any source of protein whether it be plant or animal based. Tofu, beans, chicken, lentils, tempeh, or even eggs can all be included in this section. The remaining ¼ section is then a source of starch or high quality carbohydrates. You might consider including a whole grain bread, ½ cup of mashed potatoes, pasta, or rice. Of course, you could always make that section entirely fruits!

The possibilities are endless with this method, but it allows you to plan meals around three basic components - vegetables, protein, and a source of carbohydrates. With half the plate being entirely vegetables, it provides you a source of low-calorie nutrients packed with vitamins and minerals and plenty of fiber! This can be a great tool for weight management and it does not require much effort other than rearranging a few of the foods onto the plate into appropriate portion sizes.

Meal Timing

Another suggestion might be to consume smaller, more frequent meals during the day if your hunger has kicked up due to treatment or medications. Try eating 4 or 5 smaller meals throughout the day to keep blood sugar and hunger hormones very steady. Many people find that this helps avoid consuming large meals or snacks late at night due to not eating often enough earlier in the day.

If smaller, more frequent meals are not exactly right for you then consider including more sources of protein with your snacks. Take for example an apple. Pairing an apple with a nut butter is a great way to include a high quality carbohydrate in the body and a source of protein. Pairing protein with carbs is a great way to avoid huge spikes in blood sugar that might cause you to crash later in the day and trigger another eating episode.

Exercise and Your Weight

Fatigue is a common side effect of cancer treatment making it difficult to get up and move around. This level of inactivity can lead to changes in weight, especially when they’re already being fueled by treatment or medications. If possible, I would suggest walking as an alternative form of exercise if you’re cleared by your medical team for safety. Walking is a totally acceptable form of exercise because it gets the body up and moving and your heart rate elevated.

To start walking daily, you might consider starting slowly and building yourself up. Start with 10 minutes after each meal and aim for 30 minutes per day of walking. If you find your endurance and energy levels building then slowly start increasing to 45 minutes or even an hour! The American Heart Association recommends adults aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. By starting slowly and building up each day, you will be helping to manage your weight and improve your energy levels. Exercise can make dramatic changes in your mood, sleep patterns, dietary habits, and cancer treatment.

What You Need to Know About Gaining Weight During Cancer Treatment

Undergoing cancer treatment is a life altering event that requires so many changes in your daily life. These changes also extend to the diet and lifestyle with a major emphasis on proper nutrition and moderate exercise. Truly, cancer treatment is not the best time to try a popular fad diet or completely change your eating habits. Sometimes, treatment may make it hard to even eat at all. It is important to keep in mind that small changes lead to big success. Eating a well-balanced diet and one that you enjoy is what matters the most during this time. Move as you can - and walking can be the best bet for you during this time. I encourage you to listen to your body and indulge your sweet tooth from time to time! Let go of restrictions and rules and create new habits for yourself now.

Weight gain can sometimes be inevitable with the treatment or type of cancer involved, but weight can be managed through the diet. You may be living in a different kind of body but remember: all bodies are wonderful. Consider trying intuitive eating and listening to your hunger cues. The Plate Method is another great tool to try as it increases the amount of vegetables in your diet while also maintaining and eating balanced meals. Whatever suggestion you try is up to you and how your body is feeling. All of these suggestions are meant to support a healthy eating pattern that allows for weight management and satisfaction of appetite. Gaining weight might be a new and challenging journey, but it can be so much easier by making just a few simple dietary changes.

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