I have joked sometimes that I wish I had this problem, but truthfully, losing too much weight can be problematic for someone undergoing cancer therapy. Weight loss during chemotherapy is not a guaranteed phenomenon. In fact, most women undergoing breast cancer and ovarian cancer chemotherapy actually put on some weight during their treatment and in the period of time following treatment. When too much weight loss does happen, though, we oncologists typically don’t like to see it.
Losing too much weight can lead to undernutrition – or even frank malnutrition. In addition to loss of body fat, patients often lose lean muscle mass. Too much involuntary weight loss (or voluntary, for that matter) can increase health risks and lead to an increased risk of mortality.
That’s not a good thing.
The reasons for weight loss can be multiple, and your physician should ensure that any treatable causes are identified. Some of the more common – treatable – reasons for weight loss are diabetes, hyperthyroidism, some infections, and even certain medications. Nausea and vomiting from treatment, or from the cancer itself, are also a potential cause of weight loss, and these symptoms can hopefully be treated — and prevented next time around.
If weight loss is because of poor appetite, and if nothing else is working to keep the weight up, there are prescription medications that can be prescribed to stimulate the appetite. These can be helpful in the right situation, especially if forcing yourself to eat just isn’t working.
Before I try a prescription appetite stimulant, I usually recommend other interventions first. To put on weight, I usually recommend relaxing any diet restrictions that a patient may have put on himself or herself in order to eat “healthier” during chemotherapy. Eating a healthier diet — with whole grains, lean proteins, plenty of vegetables and fruits – is a wonderful thing, whether you have cancer or not. But, if one’s diet modifications have restricted calories too much, I’m not a happy doc. The cancer treatment time is generally not a time for dieting, and it is possible to make lifestyle changes in one’s diet while still maintaining an appropriate weight.
Here are some other tips for keeping weight loss to a minimum:
- Eat more eggs. One large egg contains 6 grams of high quality protein that is easily digestible and inexpensive, especially when compared to the much pricier protein supplements. Not only are eggs a conveniently self-packaged protein source, but they contain 10 to 20% or more of choline (important for cell metabolism), selenium (an antioxidant), riboflavin, vitamin B12, and phosphorus.
- If nut allergies are not a problem, incorporate more nuts into your diet. Just one ounce of pistachios or almonds contains 6 grams of protein.
- Protein shakes (such as Ensure or Boost) are an easy solution, but these supplements can be financially taxing if you’re on a limited income. Finding a flavor that you like is important, and if you really want to increase calories as well as protein, blend a scoop of ice cream into the supplement and make a milkshake out of it.
Since eggs are the cheapest way to up protein in the diet, I’m a big fan of eggs. These easy-to-prepare recipes won’t steer you wrong: