Nutrition for Strength When You're Not Well
Get tips on nutrition and healthy eating when you’re ill.
We've all heard the old adage "you are what you eat" -- and it's
never as true as when you are feeling under the weather. During these times,
what you eat and when you eat it can preserve strength, boost immunity, and
help you feel better -- quicker.
But for people battling arthritis, cancer, depression, and other conditions
that can affect appetite, eating right is much easier said than done. To help,
WebMD compiled this list of nutrients you need, complete with suggestions for
how to get them quickly and easily.
Harnessing the Power of Protein
Hands down, "the most important nutrient when you are feeling weak is
protein," says Rachel Beller, MS, RD, director of the Brander Nutritional
Oncology Counseling and Research Program at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in
Santa Monica, Calif. "We need protein for strength and for maintaining
proper body mass."
If you have cancer, are not hungry, and don't eat, "you could become
weakened to the point that treatment can be halted," she says. To avoid
this scenario, "psychologically think of food as medicine."
When you feel too ill to eat, consider a high-calorie drink, Beller
suggests. "Take some easily-digestible protein powder (such as whey) and
put it in a blender with some almond milk (which is also easy to digest) and
some frozen berries, so it has a cool temperature, but it's not icy," she
"Sliced bananas or yogurt can be added to make it creamy," she says.
"Blend and drink." It's high-protein (containing roughly 21 grams of
protein, which is the equivalent to 3 ounces of chicken), contains one to two
servings of fruit, and is rich in calcium, Beller says.
Another good choice: "Healthy, high-protein foods such as nuts are
usually well tolerated when you are nauseous," she says. Almond butter,
cashew butter on crackers, or pre-prepared soup with beans also pack a good
Sally Pataky, MS, RD, recommends eggs, as well as shakes, to her clients at
the City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif. "It takes a lot of energy
to chew things," she says. "I suggest eggs because they are the best
quality protein and they are easy to eat."
Concentrating on Calcium
Calcium is an essential mineral that all women need from adolescence on,
says clinical nutrition specialist Frederic Vagnini, MD, FACS, medical director
of Pulse Anti-Aging Center in Scarsdale, N.Y. "It's an absolute must and a
For optimal bone health -- especially among people taking medications such
as corticosteroids that deplete bone density -- aim for 1,200 to 1,500 mg of
calcium a day from both food and supplements.
"Yogurt is rich in calcium and easy to get down," he says.
Taking a Daily Multivitamin
Most nutritionists, including Beller, suggest that people try to get their
vitamins from whole foods. Food contains many vitamins and minerals, and their
synergistic effect is probably more beneficial than vitamin supplements. Still,
no one has a perfect diet. So Beller and Vagnini suggest one multivitamin each
"I recommend everyone take a multivitamin, especially those who are
elderly or who have a chronic illness," says Vagnini. He says "poor
appetite is not an uncommon problem in the elderly and it is also worsened by
poor teeth, fatigue, and a decrease in mental acuity."