Expert interview- Tamara Madden, Nutritionist

26 Aug 2021

Q. For someone diagnosed with cancer, what is the role of the nutritionist and why is it important for you to be part of their care team?
A Nutritionist can provide support for meal planning to ensure that adequate nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are consumed. This helps to provide nourishment, reduce inflammation, and improve energy levels.

A qualified nutritionist can also make recommendations on any supplements which may be of benefit to individuals, and they can advise on healthy habits around sleep, exercise, and relaxation.

Q. It might sound obvious, but why is it important for people with cancer to maintain healthy eating as part of their self-care routine?
Healthy eating is an important factor in self-care as nourishment comes primarily from food. Good quality food provides us with vitamins and minerals that are essential to the body.

Most people also feel better about themselves when they eat well. Maintaining a healthy weight is also vital for recovery from cancer.

Q. Do patients need to avoid particular foods whilst undergoing certain treatments, like radiation or chemotherapy?
Some people will experience lack of appetite and nausea, along with gastrointestinal discomfort and possible constipation or diarrhoea. In this situation try to stick with simple, plain foods – lean meats, eggs, rice, pasta, potato, fruits that are well tolerated, or perhaps try more liquid options such as soups and smoothies. Avoid spicy, fatty or highly processed foods.

Q. For people with cancer and those who are immunosuppressed, what are some foods to ‘love’ and foods to ‘avoid’ and why?
One of the most nourishing foods is a homemade bone broth – or old-fashioned chicken soup. A good quality bone broth (cooked for many hours) contains high levels of essential amino acids in the form of collagen, along with nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. It can be consumed as a drink, soup, or used in cooking as you would stock.

Foods to avoid would be anything disruptive to health and inflammation such as soft drink, vegetable oils, highly processed foods and excessive alcohol.

Q. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, we are experiencing concentrated time indoors. Do you think this will make it easier for people to eat unhealthily?
No, I think it is a great opportunity to spend more time cooking healthy and nourishing foods at home.

Q. What are some suggestions you have to help encourage healthy eating during this time?
Spend time planning the meals for the week ahead, then you only have to shop once per week either in store, or online. Planning ahead enables you to choose healthy options, you can then do some cooking on the weekend, or plan to cook a few meals at once. This is a great way to reduce stress as you don’t get to 6pm and have to decide what’s for dinner.

Q. Do you have any ‘mood boosting’ food suggestions or hacks to share, for people to try?
Foods that contain high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids are thought to boost mood. We cannot make Omega 3 fatty acid in the body, so we must consume it – hence it is referred to as an Essential Fatty Acid. It is vital for brain development and cell signaling in the brain. Foods high in Omega 3 are fatty fish such as Sardines, Mackerel and Salmon, also Chia seeds and Walnuts are good sources.

Dark Chocolate is also known as mood boosting food due to the compounds it contains that can trigger a feel-good response in your brain. It’s also high in antioxidants that help reduce inflammation.

The final group is foods that contain probiotics such as fermented vegetables, kombucha and kefir – a fermented milk drink similar to yoghurt. These foods can increase levels of good bacteria in the gut, which in turn improves the body's ability to produce hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine that regulate mood.

Q. If people are finding it hard to get hold of fresh, healthy ingredients like they usually would, what are some simple tips for snacking/eating healthily at home with alternative ingredients?
Frozen vegetables and fruits are highly nutritious, also snacks such as nuts, seeds, rice cakes with nut butter or tahini, and chia pudding. Tinned beans and legumes are also a great staple and easy to add protein and fibre to a meal.

Q. What resources would you recommend people with cancer call on, when trying to maintain healthy eating during this time, and more generally outside of COVID-19?
Many health care practitioners such as nutritionists are offering their services online during this time. You can organize to connect one on one, or sign up to meals plans, download recipes, or watch videos online on how to cook nutritious foods.