Your colon is a key player in your digestive system, which processes and delivers nutrients throughout your body to keep you strong and healthy. As such, eating well and maintaining a nutritious diet is one of the best ways you can prepare for and recover from colon cancer treatments. Here are some key tips for building a diet plan that will help you keep your colon in the best shape possible before and after treatment.

Your body’s nutritional needs during colon cancer

Because your colon plays such a major role in proper digestion, your body won’t get the necessary nutrients, fats, and proteins it needs to function properly while fighting cancer. For this reason, your diet plan should include foods that fulfill these needs.

Additionally, cancer treatments like chemotherapy can be extremely difficult on your body, as they sometimes destroy healthy tissue as well as cancerous. To rebuild strength, experts say there are some key areas to pay attention to.

“In general, cancer patients aren’t receiving adequate calories or protein. Meeting minimum calorie and protein needs is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system and preventing further infections throughout the body,” says Puja Mistry, a Texas-based licensed and registered dietitian. “Colon cancer patients specifically need extra protein and fiber to assist in keeping the colon clean as well as preventing infections from spreading.”

Five to six small meals a day are recommended to avoid feeling nauseous and bloated. It’s also important not to skip meals. Regular meals are essential to refuel your body during this difficult time, so try eating and drinking slowly. You can also choose foods and drinks that are room temperature or colder to help with any nausea. Avoiding rooms with cooking smells and having someone else prepare meals for you can also be very helpful.

What to eat and drink to prepare for treatment

The first step to creating a custom diet plan, says Mistry, is to think about your daily routine. What do you normally eat every day? How often? Based on this, you can make modifications that make sense for you.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s current health situation, dietary restrictions, and capabilities are unique. For example, take into account how well you’re able to chew and swallow, what symptoms you’re experiencing, as well as any food allergies or intolerances you may have. If you need help, your doctor and dietitian can also work with you to build a diet plan based on your individual needs.

Proper hydration is key to prepare your body for common colon cancer treatments like surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. Your body may lose a great deal of fluid and electrolytes during treatment, which can not only make you feel faint during treatment, but also make it more difficult to bounce back afterward.

Fruits and vegetables are excellent additions to your pretreatment diet plan, as they contain vital vitamins and antioxidants. Foods with skin, including nuts, raw fruits, and vegetables, may not be recommended before surgery, however. So make sure to ask your doctor about what you can eat. Smoothies and juices are a great way to stay hydrated and incorporate fiber and protein when you lack an appetite or have trouble chewing.

If possible, try adding fresh fish into your meal plans one to three times a week. Fish is full of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are both essential for those fighting colon cancer.

Other foods and snacks you can try include bland foods like:

  • baked chicken
  • buttered noodles or rice
  • crackers
  • individually wrapped string cheese

Oncology dietitian Chelsey Wisotsky, RD, CSO from Savor Health, a personalized nutrition service for cancer patients, suggests blending up a smoothie to sip on before your next treatment:

Slow-down smoothie

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cups milk or nondairy milk
  • 1 large banana
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal
  • 1/2 Tbsp. smooth natural peanut butter
  • sprinkle of cinnamon

Directions: Blend together until smooth.

“This slow-down smoothie is high in soluble fiber, protein, and moderate in fat, which will help manage side effects of diarrhea, while providing calories and protein,” says Wisotsky. “If you are on chemotherapy, which requires you to avoid cold foods, make this smooth with warm milk.”

What you shouldn’t include in your diet plan

Certain foods and drinks can be harmful during your colon cancer treatments and should be avoided. These include:

  • foods and drinks high in simple sugars like sugary desserts and candy
  • foods high in saturated fats and trans fats like pork, lamb, butter, and processed snacks
  • greasy, fried foods
  • carbonated drinks and soda
  • caffeine

It’s best to cut out alcohol and tobacco during treatments as well. Additionally, research suggests that red meat and processed meats are associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer, so it’s a good idea to also avoid these during treatment. If you regularly eat these foods, talk to your cancer team on how best to replace them in your diet plan.

Taste changes are common during treatment, which can make foods you usually enjoy displeasing. To help, try adding spices, herbs, and marinades to foods, making sure to avoid making anything too spicy or salty. You can also ask your doctor or dietitian about taking a zinc sulfate supplement, says Mistry, to help with taste alterations.

What to eat and drink to help with recovery

Your post-cancer treatment diet should continue to focus on good nutrition to help prevent cancer and other chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. If your side effects have subsided, you can begin to add in some of your regular foods as you tolerate them. Continue to choose foods rich in good fats, lean meats, and plant-based protein. Low-fat dairy products are also a good addition. Continue to restrict your alcohol and tobacco use as much as possible.

Whether you’re still dealing with side effects or not, Wisotsky offers two additional snacks you can make at home:

GG yogurt

Ingredients:

  • 1 container of plain nonfat Greek yogurt
  • 4-6 ginger snap cookies
  • 1/2 banana, sliced, if desired

Directions: Top yogurt with crushed cookies and sliced banana, and serve.

“The combination of nonfat Greek yogurt and ginger-containing cookies may help patients consume a light meal/snack, which will help to manage nausea, not exacerbate it by eating a large/heavy meal. ... [Add] the banana on top for more soluble fiber if you’re also experiencing diarrhea.”

High-protein pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 1 large ripe banana, mashed
  • 1 organic egg
  • 1/4 cup nondairy milk
  • 1/2 cup ground oats or quick-cook oats

Directions: Blend together, and add more milk if the batter’s too thick. Makes one large or three small pancakes.

“These pancakes are high in soluble fibers to slow down movement through the GI tract,” says Wisotsky.