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Cancer Health Center

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Nutrition for Strength When You're Not Well

Get tips on nutrition and healthy eating when you’re ill.

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 no-brainier."

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 day.

"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."

Finding Time for Fiber

Most people need 20-35 grams of fiber a day, depending on your gender and age, according to the American Dietetic Association. In addition to improving regularity, adequate fiber can help prevent several forms of cancer and heart disease.

"Generally speaking, fiber comes from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains," Vagnini says. But if your appetite is compromised, "one of the things that you may try is a fiber supplement or try oat bran cereal mixed with some milk and fruit."

Fresh fruit is another great source of fiber. Also, some meal-replacement drinks and bars have fiber in them.

Certain pain medications and cancer medications can be constipating, so fiber can help keep you regular. But she cautions against filling up on bran because it is important to get calories from other foods as well.

Fitting in Fat

"We encourage people to eat fats like avocado and even ice cream," Pataky says. "We are not as concerned about fat types as we are about getting in calories because if you lose weight when you are sick, it's not just fat loss, it's muscle loss as well and that is very hard to get back," she says. "It's important to get enough calories and fat is high in calories," she says.

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