If you’ve received a diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), there are likely many things on your mind. Thinking about food might not feel like a priority right now.

Keep in mind that good nutrition is important for everyone. Nourishing your body is an important part of self-care during this challenging time. Food can help keep your body well enough for treatments and to support immune function.

Eating can be difficult, especially if you’re not feeling well or your energy level is very low. Some foods might work better for you than others, depending on your symptoms and how you’re feeling.

Food is fuel for your body. It provides energy and a variety of nutrients to help support your well-being. You can think of food as a type of medicine.

Eating well can help:

  • improve your energy level and mood
  • manage some of your symptoms
  • maintain weight and muscle mass
  • keep your strength up to help with treatments
  • support your immune function

Eating a variety of foods can help give your body what it needs. Foods provide different nutrients that all play roles in your health. Here are some important nutrients and foods that provide them.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are your body’s favorite source of fuel. They provide quick energy for your brain and body. Sources of carbohydrates include foods such as pasta, rice, potatoes, breads, and cereals. Dairy products and fruit also contain some carbohydrates.

When it comes to choosing the best source of carbohydrates, some options are more nutritious than others. Consider choosing options like butternut squash, whole grains, and legumes.

Protein

Think of protein as building blocks. Protein is used to build and repair muscles throughout your body. Without enough protein, muscles start to break down in the body.

Protein is also needed for cellular communication, maintaining fluid balance, immune function, and more.

You can get protein from meats, chicken, fish, beans, lentils, dairy products, soy, nuts, seeds, and eggs.

Fats

Fats help increase the absorption of some nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat is required for many important bodily processes, including chemical reactions needed for immune function and metabolism. Fat also adds texture and flavor to foods.

Sources of fat include oils, butter, avocado, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, and seeds.

Fiber

Fiber is the part of food that your body can’t break down. Getting enough fiber helps your digestive system work smoothly and prevent constipation. Fiber is found in whole grain products, nuts, seeds, beans, bran, fruits, and vegetables.

Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants

There are many different vitamins and minerals in food. They each have specific roles in the body. They help us use other nutrients and support our immune system.

Eating a variety of foods ensures that you’ll get a variety of vitamins and minerals. Plus, foods provide antioxidants, which help fight inflammation and cellular damage.

When you get a cancer diagnosis, the goal is to get as much variety in your diet as possible to best meet your nutrition needs.

There may be some foods that you’re not tolerating right now due to side effects of your cancer or treatment. There may be foods that just don’t appeal to you right now. That’s OK. Listen to your body and do your best.

Some foods are more likely to make you sick, especially when your immune system isn’t working well. Foods that carry a high risk of foodborne germs, such as unpasteurized milk, undercooked meats, raw seafood, and raw or undercooked eggs, aren’t recommended.

If you’re having trouble chewing or swallowing, you may do better with softer foods. Foods that are too tough, chewy, crunchy, or dry might not work for you.

If you’re having trouble eating enough, avoid any foods that are low in fat or calories (energy). Your body needs the extra fat and calories right now. Choose foods that are higher in protein, calories, and healthy fats to help meet your energy needs, even when your appetite is low.

There’s no evidence for a specific diet when you have MCL. However, research shows that consuming a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods may benefit your immune system, which may help in cancer treatment.

Aim to eat foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and protein. This may boost your energy levels. Many studies have linked a healthy diet pattern with increased survival and lower rates of cancer coming back in people with various types of cancer.

For example, consider eating more foods such as:

  • vegetables
  • citrus fruits
  • legumes
  • fish

In addition, avoiding highly refined products, such as fast food, processed meats, and soda, may help support the overall health of your body while you’re in treatment.

But at the same time, it’s important to be cautious about cutting out any foods from your diet when you’re living with cancer. If you’re finding it difficult to tolerate certain foods, focus on eating what you can.

When your immune system isn’t working well, food safety is especially important. It’s harder for your body to fight off any germs in food that can potentially make you sick.

Here are some tips to keep your food safe:

  • Thaw frozen meats in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • Wash your hands before cooking or eating.
  • If someone else is preparing your food, ask them to wash their hands before touching any food.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using different surfaces and utensils for raw and cooked foods.
  • Wash all surfaces and tools used for raw meat in hot, soapy water after using.
  • Use a meat thermometer to make sure food is cooked properly. See cooking temperatures listed below.
  • Store foods properly. Cold foods should be kept below 40°F (4°C) and hot foods need to be above 140°F (60°C) to prevent bacteria growth. Limit the amount of time that food spends in the 40 to 140°F (4 to 60°C) zone to less than 2 hours.

Cooking your food to the right internal temperature can help make sure it’s safe to eat. To help protect yourself from foodborne illness, cook these foods to at least the minimum temperature listed here:

  • beef, veal, and lamb to at least 145°F (63°C)
  • ground meat to 160°F (71°C)
  • pork to 160°F (71°C)
  • ground poultry to 165°F (74°C)
  • chicken breast to 170°F (77°C)
  • chicken thigh or whole chicken to 180°F (82°C)

Remember, when using a meat thermometer, you need to check the internal temperature of the food. Don’t simply touch it to the surface.

If you stick the thermometer in more deeply, be careful that it isn’t touching the pan, which may be hotter than the food itself.

It can be normal to have a low appetite when you have cancer. You may feel sick and not want to eat.

Here are some ideas that might help:

  • Have small, regular meals. Aim to eat something small every 2 hours. Some people find that an empty stomach can make nausea worse.
  • Set an alarm. You may want to set a timer to remind yourself to eat.
  • Prepare simple, bland foods. Try plain foods that don’t have a strong smell, such as crackers, toast, rice, and pasta.
  • Have quick snacks ready to go. When you’re not feeling well, it can be hard to face doing any food prep. Try foods that are ready to eat, like yogurt, fruit slices with nut butter, trail mix, hard-boiled eggs, energy balls, or veggies with hummus or guacamole.
  • Try liquids. Sometimes drinks are better tolerated than solid food. Smoothies or liquid meal replacements can provide lots of nutrients. They may be helpful when you don’t feel like eating.
  • Try ginger or lemon. Some people find that sipping ginger tea or chewing ginger candies can help when feeling nauseated. Fresh lemons may be a soothing scent. You can add lemon to your water or tea.
  • Create a calming space. It may help to eat with someone else. If you’re alone, try to create a relaxing environment. You can read a book, listen to music, or watch a favorite TV show.
  • Eat whatever sounds appealing. If you’re really struggling with eating, don’t worry about having a balanced meal. Eat whatever your body feels it can manage.

Dietitians are experts on food and nutrition. There may be a dietitian who works with your cancer care team. Ask someone on your care team for a recommendation.

A dietitian can help you:

  • best meet your nutrient needs, considering any challenges you’re having
  • make dietary changes to help manage your symptoms
  • if you’ve lost weight and are worried about malnutrition
  • with decisions about feeding support if you’re not meeting your nutrient needs through your current diet

Nutrition is an important part of taking care of your body, especially when you have cancer. Our bodies need a variety of nutrients to function well.

Dietary changes may help manage some symptoms of cancer or side effects of its treatment. If you’re having trouble meeting your nutrition needs, working with a dietitian can help.