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October 11, 2023 | 4 minute read

How Nutrition Can Help Fight Cancer Fatigue

Key takeaways:

  • Cancer fatigue is a common side effect of cancer treatment.
  • A new study shows that a diet high in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and oily fish can help reduce cancer fatigue.
  • The synergistic effect of these foods provides the greatest benefit more than any individual food. A varied diet pattern is important for reducing cancer-related fatigue.

One common side effect of cancer and its treatments is extreme fatigue, which may affect quality of life. But, according to a recent study published in Nutrition and Cancer, an effective treatment might be as close as your kitchen.

Researchers looked at whether a small group of lymphoma survivors could reduce cancer-related fatigue symptoms by eating a healthier diet and the results were promising. Cancer survivors worked with a dietitian for 12 weeks to improve their diets by including these foods each day:

  • Five servings of vegetables, including one leafy green vegetable, one tomato and one yellow or orange vegetable
  • Two servings of fruit, including one high in vitamin C, like oranges
  • Three servings of whole grains like oats or brown rice
  • Two servings of omega-3 fats from oily fish like salmon and plants like walnuts or flaxseeds

Participants rated their fatigue levels at the beginning and end of the study. By the end of 12 weeks, each person improved their diet quality scores. Importantly, they also reported much less cancer fatigue.

Some of the benefits of this dietary pattern may come when people choose whole foods in place of low nutrient, excessively sugary foods (like eating fruit instead of candy). Both what you eat, and what it replaces, make a difference in fatigue levels.

Cancer-related fatigue is different than feeling tired, and it isn’t resolved by napping. Cancer-related fatigue can even persist after a good night’s sleep. Talk to your doctor about how nutrition, physical activity and stress reduction can help with your cancer fatigue.

Proper Nutrition Helps Combat Cancer Fatigue

The foods listed above are part of the Fatigue Reduction Diet Pattern, which was previously studied in breast cancer survivors. Dr. Tonya Orchard, the lymphoma study’s lead researcher at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center says “we believe it’s the synergistic effect of this diet pattern that has the most impact on fatigue, not one particular food or food group.”

Remember, there’s no single food that fights cancer, but a nutritious dietary patterns filled with  Foods that Fight Cancer can be beneficial.

The Fatigue Reduction Diet Pattern provides essential nutrients that may fight inflammation and are good for health. “Inflammation plays a role in cancer fatigue,” Dr. Orchard said. “We know severely fatigued cancer survivors have higher inflammatory markers, but it’s unclear if inflammation causes cancer-related fatigue or if it happens because of it.”

Overcome Cancer Fatigue

Eating better is something all cancer survivors can do to improve their quality of life. Dr. Orchard suggests relying on the healthy eating guidelines from AICR, which align with dietary patterns like Mediterranean or DASH diets. Start by planning meals with the New American Plate and following AICR’s 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations.

Dr. Orchard also notes that AICR’s Healthy10 Challenge takes a step-by-step approach to dietary changes. It’s similar to how dietitians helped participants make diet changes in this study. “Working with a dietitian is also key to behavior change success,” according to Dr. Orchard. “They are trained to help troubleshoot barriers and can provide tools for long-term behavior change success.”

Cooking Up a Fatigue Reduction Diet

Try these tips to make healthy eating easier:

  • Focus on making small, manageable changes.
  • Try a new vegetable or fruit each week.
  • Include healthy swaps whenever possible. For example, snack on carrots instead of chips.
  • Don’t stress about days when you miss the targets. Focus on your long-term dietary pattern.
  • Ask for help when you need A dietitian can personalize your diet and help you overcome challenges.

What’s Next?

The research team will expand their study into a randomized controlled trial funded by AICR. Suzanna Zick, ND, MPH, Dr. Orchard’s co-investigator on the lymphoma study, is an AICR grantee.

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