Healthy Eating When You’re Sick
By Peter Jaret
Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD
Eating healthy meals isn’t easy when you don’t feel well, especially if you have a serious or chronic illness. You may be too tired to prepare food for yourself. Medicines may make food taste strange or unpleasant. Mouth sores or swallowing problems can make eating difficult. Or nausea, which is a common symptom and a common side effect of some medications, may make food the last thing you want to think about.
“Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do, even when you’re not feeling well, to get the nutrition you need,” says Veronica McLymont, PhD, RD, director of food and nutrition services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Lack of Appetite
Eat smaller meals more frequently through the day than you do when you’re healthy. “We tend to eat with our eyes,” says Sarah Rafat, RD, senior dietitian at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Sitting down to too big a meal can seem overwhelming if you don’t have much of an appetite.” Make a list of comfort foods that you love and have one or two on hand for when you feel like eating. Also keep nutritious snacks handy, such as nuts, carrot sticks, or yogurt.
Mouth Sores, Dry Mouth, or Trouble Swallowing
Avoid foods that require a lot of chewing. Puree or grind foods like meat and vegetables to make them easier to eat. Liquid foods such as soups and smoothies are also good options. “Real foods are always the best choice,” says Kim Jordan, RD, director of nutrition at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, part of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “But if you’re having serious problems eating and swallowing, talk to your doctor about liquid meal replacements.” For dry mouth, try chewing gum or sucking on hard candies like lemon drops, which stimulates saliva production.
Choose bland foods. Eat smaller meals more often during the day than you would when you are healthy. Eat slowly. Hard candy, peppermint, and ginger may ease nausea. If nausea persists, talk to your doctor. An anti-nausea medicine may help.
When you’re sick, you may feel too tired to make a meal. Stock up on prepared foods that you can easily pop in the microwave, such as frozen lasagna or pot pies. Keep nutritious snacks on hand such as nuts, sliced vegetables, hardboiled eggs, whole grain breakfast cereal, or yogurt. Eat your biggest meal at a time when you have the most energy.
Diarrhea is a common symptom and a side effect of some medicines. Eating soft, bland foods and avoiding greasy foods can help. Drink plenty of water or other fluids, since diarrhea can quickly dehydrate you. One way to replace electrolytes is to drink a sports beverage diluted with water.
Opioid pain medicines and certain other treatments often cause constipation. To help prevent and treat constipation, eat foods high in fiber, such as apricots, prunes, applesauce, and whole grain breakfast cereals. Getting up and walking can also help get your digestive tract moving.
Unwanted Weight Loss
“If you’re losing weight when you shouldn’t, your top priority is taking in more calories,” says McLymont. Help yourself to foods you love, including high-calorie foods like milkshakes and desserts. Eat as often as you can throughout the day. Snack on high-energy foods such as nuts, seeds, cheese slices, and hardboiled eggs.
Unwanted Weight Gain
Some commonly used medicines can also make you gain unwanted weight. These include:
Alpha-blockers and Beta blockers for regulation of blood pressure
Anticonvulsants for epilepsy or other neurologic symptoms
Antidepressants, certain ones such as Elavil, Endep, (amitriptyline), Eskalith, Lithobid (lithium carbonate), and Zyprexa (olanzapine)
Steroids like prednisone for arthritis and similar conditions
Falling Short on Nutrients
If you’re having real trouble eating a balanced diet, you may benefit from taking a vitamin and mineral supplement. Talk to your doctor or a dietitian before taking dietary supplements, especially if you take medicines for a serious health condition. Some supplements can impact the effectiveness of medicines.
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