It's inevitable: Every January, you see ads for weight loss and fitness programs, as well as articles and blogs on how to lose weight and get in shape. Those are the top two resolutions people make every New Year. But what about for the cancer patient who may be struggling to maintain their weight?
I started thinking about some of the common messages for those trying to lose weight. Could they be “flipped” to help patients maintain or gain weight if needed? Interestingly, a few messages even apply in their original form.
“Out of sight, out of mind”: One of the common weight loss recommendations is to keep high-calorie foods out of sight to help decrease the visual cue that triggers someone to eat. If we flip this for struggling cancer patients, then perhaps keeping foods in plain sight will help trigger them to eat more.
Keep clear containers of trail mix, nuts, or crackers on the countertop, or in the refrigerator. Have single serve containers of yogurt, cheese cubes, or even leftovers ready to heat up and serve.
Avoid mindless eating: Where we eat may also be a cue to overeat. For example, many people mindlessly eat in front of the TV, computer, at their desk, or in their car. Their mind isn’t fully on the food, and they end up eating more than intended. I often tell people trying to lose weight to set some “rules” about where they will eat -- only at the kitchen table, etc.
For cancer patients dealing with weight loss or poor intake, some mindless eating would actually be good! Have some snacks in front of the TV or in the car when traveling to appointments.
Watch for peer-induced overeating: Studies have shown that as the number of people we eat with increases, the more we eat. We can be easily influenced by others to order something we might not have otherwise ordered, or simply want the social time to last so we continue to eat. Now, for weight loss, that doesn’t mean always eating alone, but we need to be conscious of what we are eating and how much.
For cancer patients, and anyone with a poor intake, eating with others can positively influence how much they eat. We see this in seniors all the time, and it's one of the main benefits of senior centers and congregate meal programs. Encourage cancer patients to eat with others; if people bring food, see if they can join the patient for a meal. Eating together is a very social activity and can bring a lot of enjoyment.
Eat more vegetables: I am certainly not going to advocate that anyone eat less vegetables! For weight loss, they are great because they can provide bulk with few calories, and of course, great nutritional quality. For cancer patients, my recommendation would be to “pump up” vegetables. Sprinkle some nuts over green beans, sauté vegetables in some olive or canola oil, or add sliced hard-boiled egg to spinach. Adding some high calorie ingredients to vegetables will keep all the nutritional benefits they provide, but also plenty of needed calories.
Practice portion control: I don’t think this needs to be flipped either. The ever-increasing portion sizes are likely contributing to the obesity crisis we have now, and people working to lose weight need to be very mindful of proper portion sizes. For cancer patients however, large portions can be off-putting and dissuade them from trying to eat at all. It may seem too daunting to eat a whole bowl of spaghetti if they already have a poor appetite.
Prepare small portions so patients can go back for more if desired. Keep small, single-serving portions ready to eat or heat up. Patients may be more likely to go for that instead of facing a large container of food.
Get some exercise: Another one that doesn’t need to be flipped. For weight control, exercise burns calories, maintains muscle mass, helps with stress management, and the benefits go on and on. It can have the same benefits for cancer patients, with added ones -- combating fatigue, aiding in sleep, etc. I would just want patients to first make sure it's advisable with their healthcare team, and maybe not exercise at a very high intensity level.
It's really the high-intensity cardiovascular exercise and building muscle mass that burns calories. Maintaining what muscle mass patients have is vital for fighting fatigue, keeping their immune system strong, maintaining their strength, and even independence.
Are you aware of any additional weight loss suggestions that can be “flipped” for the cancer patient?