Benefits of Good Nutrition for Children During and After Cancer Treatment

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:

  • Feel better, sleep better, be less irritable, and work better with their health care team
  • Better deal with treatment and side effects
  • Stay on schedule with their treatment
  • Heal and recover faster
  • Have less risk of infection
  • Have better strength and energy
  • Reach and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Maintain their body’s store of nutrients

Long-term benefits of healthy eating and exercise habits

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.

MyPlate

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.

How a registered dietitian nutritionist can help

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.

Anderson PM, Thomas SM, Sartoski S, et al. Strategies to mitigate chemotherapy and radiation toxicities that affect eating. Nutrients. 2021;13(12):4397. 

Bauer J, Jürgens H, Frühwald MC. Important aspects of nutrition in children with cancer. Adv Nutr. 2011;2(2):67-77. 

Brinksma A, Sulkers E, IJpma I, Burgerhof JGM, Tissing WJE. Eating and feeding problems in children with cancer: Prevalence, related factors, and consequences. Clin Nutr. 2020;39(10):3072-3079.

Children’s Oncology Group. The Children’s Oncology Group Family Handbook (2nd ed.) childrensoncologygroup.org. Accessed at https://childrensoncologygroup.org/family-handbook-268
on March 30, 2022.

Phillips SM, Jensen C. Indications for nutritional assessment in childhood. UpToDate.com. Updated Oct 19, 2021. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/indications-for-nutritional-assessment-in-childhood on April 1, 2022.

Raber M, Crawford K, Baranowski T, et al. Exploring food preparation practices in families with and without school-aged childhood cancer survivors. Public Health Nutr. 2020;23(3):410-415.

Rock CL, Thomson CA, Sullivan KR, et al. American Cancer Society nutrition and physical activity guideline for cancer survivors. CA Cancer J Clin. 2022. Accessed at  https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21142 on April 4, 2022. 

United States Department of Agriculture. MyPlate. Accessed at https://www.myplate.gov/ on April 1, 2022.

References

Anderson PM, Thomas SM, Sartoski S, et al. Strategies to mitigate chemotherapy and radiation toxicities that affect eating. Nutrients. 2021;13(12):4397. 

Bauer J, Jürgens H, Frühwald MC. Important aspects of nutrition in children with cancer. Adv Nutr. 2011;2(2):67-77. 

Brinksma A, Sulkers E, IJpma I, Burgerhof JGM, Tissing WJE. Eating and feeding problems in children with cancer: Prevalence, related factors, and consequences. Clin Nutr. 2020;39(10):3072-3079.

Children’s Oncology Group. The Children’s Oncology Group Family Handbook (2nd ed.) childrensoncologygroup.org. Accessed at https://childrensoncologygroup.org/family-handbook-268
on March 30, 2022.

Phillips SM, Jensen C. Indications for nutritional assessment in childhood. UpToDate.com. Updated Oct 19, 2021. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/indications-for-nutritional-assessment-in-childhood on April 1, 2022.

Raber M, Crawford K, Baranowski T, et al. Exploring food preparation practices in families with and without school-aged childhood cancer survivors. Public Health Nutr. 2020;23(3):410-415.

Rock CL, Thomson CA, Sullivan KR, et al. American Cancer Society nutrition and physical activity guideline for cancer survivors. CA Cancer J Clin. 2022. Accessed at  https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21142 on April 4, 2022. 

United States Department of Agriculture. MyPlate. Accessed at https://www.myplate.gov/ on April 1, 2022.

Last Revised: June 22, 2022

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.

Last Revised: June 22, 2022

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