Eating a nutritious diet can ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs to keep up your energy and support your immune system

Good nutrition is important for everyone, but it can be difficult for people with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and other cancers to achieve.

Often, cancer treatments and cancer itself can drastically affect your ability or desire to eat. The following side effects can all contribute to decreased food intake:

Certain types of cancer can also increase your metabolic rate, causing you to burn more calories than you can consume in a day and ultimately lose weight (known as cachexia).

A 2017 study found that people with AML who had good nutritional status had shorter hospital stays and longer survival rates than those who were malnourished.

Eating a nutritious diet can help:

  • maintain your strength and energy
  • support your immune system
  • reduce unintentional weight or muscle loss
  • improve your tolerance to certain treatments
  • improve your healing and recovery time

Working closely with a registered dietitian and other healthcare professionals to ensure you’re getting adequate nutrition is an important part of cancer treatment.

It’s important to make sure you’re getting enough protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates that will give you enough calories to maintain your weight.

Foods rich in protein include:

  • meat
  • poultry
  • fish
  • tofu
  • beans
  • lentils
  • milk
  • cheese
  • soy
  • eggs
  • yogurt

Foods rich in healthy fats include:

  • avocado
  • olives
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • oils

Foods rich in carbohydrates include:

  • bread
  • rice
  • potatoes
  • cereals
  • pasta
  • barley
  • millet
  • oatmeal
  • popcorn
  • corn
  • sweet potatoes

Additionally, you want to make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and other hydrating beverages.

There may be times when you’re feeling too unwell to eat certain foods. In these cases, it’s best to eat foods you can tolerate and enjoy, regardless of their nutrient content.

For example, you may wish to limit high fiber foods when you’re experiencing diarrhea. Bland foods like white bread, refined cereals, bananas, and applesauce may be easier for you to tolerate and digest.

If you’re struggling to eat enough food, you may want to prioritize high calorie foods, such as:

  • ice cream
  • creamy soups
  • gravy
  • smoothies
  • nutritional supplements, like Ensure and Boost

Sometimes people have larger appetites at different times of the day, such as in the morning. If this is you, try to have larger meals when you feel hungry. Alternatively, have small, more frequent snacks if you tolerate this better.

Ultimately, the foods that will be right for you will be those you can safely tolerate, enjoy, and ideally, help you meet your nutrient needs. Working closely with a registered dietitian can help ensure you’re eating a diet according to your needs and preferences.

For a list of foods to eat based on your symptoms, check out this helpful eating guide by the National Institute of Cancer.

While there are no “off-limits” foods, it’s best to prioritize a nutritious diet whenever possible.

Limiting foods and beverages high in added sugars, fats, salt, and alcohol is best.

That said, if you can only tolerate certain foods with higher amounts of sugar, fat, or salt, it’s better to consume these than nothing to ensure you’re meeting your calorie needs.

It’s also important to make sure what you eat is cleaned, cooked to proper temperatures, and otherwise safe to consume.

Cancer weakens your immune system, which can increase your risk of severe foodborne illness.

Foodborne illness is commonly caused by:

  • meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, and eggs not cooked to high enough temperatures
  • unpasteurized milk, cheese, and juices
  • raw bean sprouts
  • unwashed vegetables and fruit
  • improperly canned foods (e.g., at-home canned fruit)
  • certain deli meats and soft cheeses
  • food that has expired

Though you may not always feel up to exercising, engaging in moderate-intensity physical activity can be a great way to keep your energy levels up and improve your mood.

Further, strength training exercises can help prevent or slow down muscle wasting that can often occur during cancer treatment.

Listen to your body and only engage in physical activity that feels good and doesn’t cause any pain or discomfort. Sometimes, this may be a gentle walk, gardening, or yoga.

It’s a good idea to consult with your clinician before starting a new exercise program. They can advise you on how to safely exercise based on your condition and treatment plan.

In addition to diet and exercise, there are other lifestyle habits that can help people with AML:

  • Try having smaller, more frequent meals: If you aren’t hungry or have a small appetite, try to eat smaller meals or snacks to add calories and nutrition.
  • Honor and acknowledge your emotions: Receiving an AML diagnosis can bring up many complicated emotions. Accepting and understanding your emotions instead of pushing them away can be a healthy way of dealing with them.
  • Manage stress: Finding ways to positively cope with and manage stress are important. Try getting some physical activity, taking a long bath, journaling, doing a breathing exercise, praying, or whatever helps you relax.
  • Try to get enough sleep: Though hard sometimes, getting 7–9 hours of sleep a night is important for your physical and mental well-being. If you have trouble sleeping, speak with your doctor. They may be able to recommend an over-the-counter medication or prescription sleep aid.
  • Join a support group: Hearing stories and experiences from people experiencing something similar to you can be helpful. They may also be able to provide helpful tips and tricks.
  • Ask for help: If you’re not feeling well enough to cook or prepare meals, ask a loved one for help. If not available, store some premade meals in your freezer, so you always have a meal available.
  • Consult with a healthcare professional before taking new supplements: Some supplements may interfere with your cancer treatment, so always run them by your doctor first.

What is acute myeloid leukemia?

AML is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It affects white blood cells, causing them to change and grow abnormally.

AML is a more rapid form of myeloid leukemia, compared to chronic myeloid leukemia, which progresses slowly over many years.

How common is acute myeloid leukemia?

AML is considered a rare form of cancer, accounting for about 1% of all cancer cases.

It’s estimated to affect around 20,380 people in the United States in 2023, according to the American Cancer Society.

What’s the best diet for people with leukemia?

The best diet will look different for everyone. Ideally, follow a nutritious diet that provides adequate calories, protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates.

That said, you may need to choose certain foods based on your symptoms and what you can comfortably tolerate. Working closely with a registered dietitian can help you determine the best foods for your unique situation.

Can you cure acute myeloid leukemia naturally?

To date, there is no known natural remedy that can cure acute myeloid leukemia. Due to the aggressive nature of the disease, it’s crucial you seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

While not a cure for AML, a nutrient-rich diet and regular physical activity can be helpful for treatment and recovery.

Eating a nutritious diet is important in maintaining weight and muscle mass, supporting your immune system, and providing enough nutrients.

If your cancer treatment affects your appetite, taste, or food tolerance, speak with a registered dietitian who can recommend helpful tips to ensure you’re getting enough calories, protein, and nutrients.

Some other lifestyle habits that can be helpful during your treatment and recovery include physical activity, stress management, proper sleep, and connecting with loved ones.