By Nuvance Health Oncology Dietitians
People with cancer are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, especially if they have a weakened immune system due to cancer treatment. If you or a loved one has cancer, you may be more cautious about how often and where you buy groceries.
A nutritious diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and fiber has many healing and health-promoting benefits, making it an important part of any cancer treatment plan. While obtaining these types of quality foods may be a bit more challenging than usual, there are still ways to stock your pantry and fridge with wholesome options. Here are four tips to help people with cancer maintain a healthy diet even during a pandemic.
1: Focus on the basics
Although you may like to try new recipes that use exotic ingredients, problems with food supply chains and changes in consumer behavior — such as stocking up on hard-to-find items when they are available — may make it harder to get the specific food items you want. Focusing on a few basic food groups will still allow you to get the nutrients you need to strengthen your immune system. Aim to eat a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein, such as legumes, chicken, and fish.
2: Consider shelf life
Choosing healthy foods that keep longer can help you limit trips to the store. Foods that have a longer shelf life include:
- Fresh produce such apples, carrots, cauliflower, celery, citrus fruits, garlic, kale, onions, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes
- Healthy fats such as avocados (also a produce item), nuts and seeds, and olive oil
- Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and whole grain pasta
While we generally counsel our patients to choose fresh foods, studies show that frozen fruits and vegetables may be just as nutritious as fresh produce, yet have a significantly longer shelf life. Canned beans, fruits, vegetables, and meats such as chicken and tuna also have a long shelf life and are full of nutrients. However, aim to buy frozen produce and canned foods that are in their natural state and don’t have added ingredients such as salt or sugar.
3: Shop safely
Consider using online grocery services with “contactless” grocery delivery or drive-thru pickup options that make it possible for people at high-risk of COVID-19 complications to access nutritious foods safely. Also consider reaching out to family and friends for support. Many of our patients have family and friends who are bringing them groceries.
If you go to the store, shop at less crowded times or during designated hours for vulnerable individuals. Don’t forget to clean your cart handles with a sanitizing wipe before use, wear a face mask, and follow social distancing recommendations while at the store.
Use hand sanitizer after you finish shopping, and wash your hands — as well as your fresh produce — when you get home. You might also want to use a sanitizing wipe to clean your mobile phone, credit card, and packaged grocery items.
During the warmer months, outdoor farm stands or open-air farmers markets are a great place to find fresh foods. Just follow the same safety guidelines for shopping in a store.
4: Limit alcohol and processed food purchases
Feelings such as boredom or anxiety that are common during this pandemic can lead to craving fat and sugar which are commonly found in processed foods, such as chips and donuts. These types of foods also tend to be less expensive and have a longer shelf life adding to their overall appeal. Some people are also consuming more alcohol than usual.
Increased consumption of processed foods and alcohol may be detrimental to your cancer treatment plan. Talk with your care team about what processed foods and alcohol may be okay in moderation for you. And to keep yourself from overindulging, avoid purchasing these items, or limit the amount you buy at a time.
The bottom line: Although it may be more challenging than usual to access healthy foods during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are ways that you can obtain the nutritious foods you need during cancer treatment. By focusing on the basics, considering shelf life, shopping safely, and limiting alcohol and processed food purchases, you can continue to consume a wholesome diet during the pandemic.
Nuvance Health is keeping the communities informed on our website at
nuvancehealth.org/coronavirus, and on social media @NuvanceHealth, or search for your hospital’s name.
The observations and information in this article are for educational purposes only, do not constitute medical advice, and do not replace the advice of your healthcare clinician.