Proper nutrition is important for everyone, but it can be even more essential for people living with cancer. While there’s no specific dietary guidelines for people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), certain diet patterns may help boost your energy and support recovery. Eating a nutrient-dense diet can also help support recovery after treatments like chemotherapy.

A registered dietitian can help you establish nutrition guidelines that are appropriate for you. Here are a few diet tips for CLL to add to your treatment plan.

There is substantial evidence that high consumption of processed foods such as fast food and processed meats is associated with a greater risk of developing certain cancers, including colon and breast cancer.

Processed meat refers to meat that has been treated to preserve flavor by undergoing salting, curing, or smoking, like hot dogs, bacon, and ham.

One 2018 study found an association between eating a Western diet and CLL. The study included 369 people with CLL and 1,605 control participants. It compared the incidence of CLL in people who followed one of three diets: Western, Prudent, and Mediterranean.

The Western diet includes a high intake of processed meats, refined grains, sugar, high calorie drinks, fast food, and processed dairy. The Prudent diet focuses on a high intake of vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and juices. The Mediterranean diet includes a high intake of fish, fruits, vegetables, boiled potatoes, legumes, olives, and vegetable oils.

The study data found that those who adhered to a Western dietary pattern were more likely to have CLL. No associations were found between Mediterranean and Prudent diets and CLL.

Many researchers advocate for a Mediterranean diet or a plant-based diet for cancer prevention, as well as for people with cancer. Plant-based means you focus on eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This diet also limits red meat in favor of fish and legumes.

Fruits and vegetables contain a large amount of antioxidants and phytochemicals, which may help protect against cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends consuming at least two and a half cups of vegetables and fruits each day. To get all of the necessary minerals, vitamins, and fiber, include vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, and spinach. Colorful vegetables like carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, peppers, and beets are also full of nutrients.

Healthy fats are found in foods such as extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados and avocado oil, nuts, seeds, and fish like tuna and salmon.

Many studies show a link between olive oil and reduced cancer risk. For example, a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies published in 2011 found that people who consumed high amounts of olive oil had a reduced risk of several types of cancers compared to people who mainly consumed butter.

In addition, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and flax seed have been shown in animal studies to protect from cancer.

Heavy alcohol use may increase the risk of certain cancers, including cancer of the mouth, liver, breast, and colon.

If you do choose to drink alcohol, the American Cancer Society suggests limiting intake to no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women.

In addition, certain prescription or over-the-counter medications can interact with alcohol. Discuss these potential interactions with your doctor before drinking any alcohol.

Treatment side effects may make it difficult to get enough calories and protein.

Side effects of CLL treatments such as chemotherapy include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • dry or sore mouth and throat (mucositis)
  • loss of appetite
  • loss of sense of taste and smell
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing

Ask your doctor how to manage these side effects with medications so you can still get the nutrition you need to keep your body strong. Many of these side effects can be managed with a diet of soft foods that are easier to chew and swallow.

Examples include:

  • pureed and strained soups containing lots of vegetables and beans
  • minced chicken or fish in a sauce
  • milkshakes or smoothies made with low-fat dairy, tofu, soy milk, or yogurt
  • brown rice
  • omelets or egg scrambles
  • pureed fruits like apple sauce or mashed bananas
  • oatmeal with stewed fruits

Depending on the symptoms you’re experiencing, you may need to make certain dietary changes.

For example, if you’re experiencing taste changes, adding flavorful additions to meals such as herbs and spices may help. When cooking, include garlic, onion, spices like turmeric, and herbs like parsley, basil, and thyme.

Not only will these make foods more palatable if you’re experiencing changes in taste or smell, but they’re also rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Staying properly hydrated by drinking plenty of water is essential for overall health. It can also help prevent treatment-related side effects such as constipation and dry mouth.

If you’re experiencing diarrhea due to your cancer treatment, ask your doctor about electrolyte drinks. Electrolytes are minerals that must stay in balance for cells to work properly.

There hasn’t been a lot of research done on the impact of supplements and extracts on CLL progression. But research has shown that a compound in green tea extract called EGCG may help reduce disease markers such as white blood cell counts and lymph node enlargement in people with CLL.

More research is needed, but in the meantime, drinking green tea or taking a green tea supplement most likely won’t hurt. Drinking green tea may benefit health in a number of other ways. This includes reducing the risk of heart disease and neurodegenerative conditions, as well as improving physical performance.

Green tea supplements can interfere with the effectiveness of certain medications, though. Speak with your doctor before you start taking them.

You can’t prevent or fight CLL with diet changes alone. But proper nutrition can make a huge difference during treatment and recovery and increase your overall quality of life. Nutrition is complex, so there is no “one size fits all” approach to diet.

More research is always needed, but your best option for now is to stick to a diet of lean protein, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while taking steps to manage your treatment side effects.