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Madrid, 17 December 2019. Christmas is upon us, that time of the year when we gather once more with our closest relatives over tableful after tableful of holiday lunches and dinners. It’s a special time that cancer patients feel even more keenly than most, and they can enjoy it just as much as anyone else if they follow certain dietary guidelines. “It’s very important to keep eating a healthy, varied diet that includes vegetables, rice, legumes, fish, meat, eggs, dairy products and olive oil”, explains Doctor Pedro Robledo, who manages the Clinical Nutrition and Diet Unit of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Madrid.

A cancer patient’s diet must be tailored to his or her age and gender and especially the kind of treatment the patient is receiving and the phase the cancer has reached. As Doctor Robledo says, “The symptoms change depending on treatment type, and what a person eats has got to be adjusted to suit that person’s particular case”.

For instance, treatments with intravenous chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy can make things taste different or cause nausea or constipation, while patients under hormone treatment report more trouble with weight control and changes in their blood sugar and/or blood lipids. When patients have undergone surgery, that too has to be factored in, because they may have trouble swallowing food or absorbing nutrients, and that may prevent food from moving normally through their digestive system.

Another problem cancer patients face is how to organise their 1,500-2,000 calory intake (depending on needs), which ought to be parcelled out in four or five meals. “Patients under treatment can’t always eat at their scheduled times. They might feel too queasy to eat in the morning, for example,” explains Doctor Robledo. For this and other reasons, cancer patients often eat just one big meal a day, so that meal not only has to give them the correct amount of calories; it also has to be highly nutritional and provide plenty of proteins.

A healthy Christmas Eve dinner option

With these helpful instructions, it’s easy to design a healthy, varied, tasty meal that the whole family will like. There are plenty of foods fitting each patient’s dietary recommendations that can be dressed up into an exquisite option for Christmas Eve dinner or lunch on Christmas day.

Cream of pumpkin soup is a highly recommendable choice to start with, for instance, especially for patients with stomach cancer or oesophageal cancer, “because the nutrients are easy for the stomach to absorb, and they slip easily down the oesophagus”, suggests Doctor Robledo. In addition, because it’s not high in calories, cream of pumpkin soup would also be a very good option for breast, ovarian or prostate cancer patients under hormone treatment, since hormone therapy tends to lead to weight gain.

Cream of pumpkin soup also provides carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins and a range of amino acids, so it’s a delicious food that’s also quite complete. The only patients for whom it is not recommended are those who have mucositis (inflammation of the mucous membranes) due to treatment, as pumpkin may irritate the mucous membranes.

For the main dish, turkey has a high protein level (over 20 grams of protein per 100 grams of meat), and it’s easy to digest. It can provide energy for muscles while stimulating certain bacteria in the microbiota (the microorganisms that live in the body) that may help modulate the immune system’s response.

Put dates in food to give an energy boost that’s highly recommended for most patients. It’s important to keep the calories under strict control for patients treated with platinum-based drugs and paclitaxel, who, as Doctor Robledo says, “may have some impairment of their kidney function, so they ought to watch what they eat.”

To crown the meal, yogurt is a highly beneficial food that’s good for most patients, because it has “a probiotic effect that’s most helpful against the pathogens that attack the gut bacteria”, Doctor Robledo points out. “Yogurt improves the phases of digestion and provides a number of minerals, like sodium, phosphorus and potassium”.

Cooking method and meal frequency are key

In addition, to prevent cancer, the temperature at which food is cooked and the amount of calories a person eats at each sitting can influence that person’s risk of getting cancer and the risk of further development of the disease. For example, it’s not good to eat more than three 125-gram servings of red meat per week or to cook at high temperatures (over 130 degrees centigrade). “You shouldn’t eat food cooked on the barbeque or charred meat very often”, says the doctor.