Good nutrition is important when a child has cancer. But cancer and side effects of cancer treatment can affect a child's appetite and energy levels, how they tolerate certain foods, and how their body uses nutrients. This is especially true for children who have to be in the hospital and those who develop infections and fever.
Helping children eat the right kinds of food before, during, and after cancer treatment could help them:
For children with cancer, a key focus of nutrition and physical activity is to help maintain their normal growth and development. This is important both during and after cancer treatment.
Research also shows that childhood cancer survivors are more likely to develop health conditions, such as heart disease, insulin resistance and second cancers, at younger ages than people who have not had cancer. Learning healthy eating habits when they are younger can help prevent or delay chronic health conditions later in life.
In addition, children who begin and continue regular exercise are less likely to have their cancer come back and have a lower risk of death.
Younger children with cancer are more likely to develop eating problems. These problems can be worse if the child had poor eating habits before diagnosis and if they have side effects with treatment. Helping your child learn to choose healthier foods and drinks can have both short- and long-term benefits.
The MyPlate food guide provides many resources to help with making food choices for a healthy diet. MyPlate divides foods into 5 major food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods and dairy. The website includes plans, quizzes, and life-stage focused tools to help evaluate your child’s current eating patterns and suggest ways to include more healthy foods.
Keep in mind that during treatment your child’s needs may be different from those in the MyPlate guide. Talk to your doctor, nurse, or dietitian about your child’s nutrition needs and how to best meet them.
Each child with cancer has their own nutritional needs which can be affected by their baseline status, diagnosis, treatment plan, age, activity level, and current medicines. It is recommended that each child be seen by a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or registered dietitian (RD) before they begin treatment. The dietitian can assess your child’s needs and help come up with a plan for healthy eating or suggest other ways to meet your child’s nutritional needs.
The dietitian can also be helpful anytime you have questions about eating, nutrition, or your child’s growth. They can also work with you and your child if an eating plan needs to be updated.
If you are going to meet with a dietitian, be sure to write down any questions before your meeting so you don’t forget anything. Ask them to repeat or explain anything that is not clear. For more information or to find a registered dietitian, contact the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Last Revised: June 22, 2022
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