Finding out you have recently been diagnosed with head or neck cancer is daunting enough without the added stress of an entirely new diet plan. No less, many cancer patients who fall into this category are prescribed either mechanical soft foods or puréed foods diets to accommodate both medical needs and help manage symptoms. Both of these things, coupled with radiation treatments and cancerous tissue may make it difficult for you to chew or swallow properly, resulting in the need to consume softer foods during and after head and neck cancer treatment.1
So what’s the difference? A mechanical vs. puréed diet prescription is entirely dependent on your treatment & subsequent symptoms. A mechanical soft food diet is slightly less invasive and allows you to eat foods that require less chewing than a regular diet. When on this diet you can eat foods of different textures and thicknesses, including chopped, ground and puréed foods. Conversely, a solely puréed food diet only allows you to consume foods that don’t need to be chewed at all. To ensure proper nutrition for this type of diet, commonly “un-soft food” can be blended or strained to make the consistency smoother. Similarly, liquids, such as broths, milks, and juices, can be added to make foods easier to swallow.² Based on these fundamental differences, it is important that you consult your health care provider to determine your individual needs.
For healthy and chronically ill cancer individuals alike a guide to good nutrition includes all the basic food groups: protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals and fluid. For a more in-depth description of what a healthy cancer-fighting diet entails please refer to my other blog post “How to Fight Cancer with a Healthy Diet: A Review”. By contrast, for a brief overview of each macronutrient and specific foods appropriate for mechanical and puréed food diets, read on!
Protein is important for your body to help with growth and repair and to help heal after surgery or other invasive treatments. Dietary protein for soft food diets can be found in foods like finely eggs, soft cooked beans, lentils & whole grains, nut butters, tofu, protein powders as well as fish, lean poultry, as well as milk, soft and cottage cheeses, Greek yogurt, ground meat and nutritional supplements. Please note, there have been both some positive and negative scientific links between dairy consumption and cancer rate due to the hormones used to process these foods, as well as the general diets of the animals that produce them.³ Because this research is nondescript to date, we at Saana have chosen to air on the side of caution and not incorporate dairy products into our meals at all.
Carbohydrates include starches and sugars that should make up at least half of the calories you eat as they are your bodies primary source of immediate energy. Healthy carbohydrates for soft food diets can include soft cooked starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, and squash, soft cooked grains like oatmeal or brown rice, whole grain breads, and pastas, as well as puréed fruits, like unsweetened applesauce or ripe bananas. Fresh squeezed or pressed fruit and vegetable juices, as well as fruit and vegetable loaded smoothies are great beverage alternatives to pack in all your carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals as well.
Fat is the most concentrated source of calories for the primary three macronutrients and serves as an energy storage reserve for the body. It is important to note, that as with all things, some fats are better than others when it comes to cholesterol and risk for further chronic disease. As such, it is important that you try and stick to mono- and polyunsaturated fats, the “healthy ones”, which can be found in soft foods like avocado, nut butters), vegetable-based oils, like canola, olive, peanut and safflower oils and coconut milk (with parsimony since this coconut oil & milk are saturated ones).
Some things to note when it comes to soft food diets include how unfortunately easy it is to not maintain proper nutrition. Head and neck cancer treatments can often cause side effects like lack of appetite, changes in taste, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and nausea, among others, that can lead to a disinterest in food and ultimately contribute to inadequate calorie and protein intake. As such, there are a few key pieces of advice to help such patients avoid this outcome. Primarily, eat small frequent meals (about 6-8 times per day). This will not only help reduce nausea compared to 3 traditionally larger meals but also provides more opportunity for proper nutrition. Similarly, if you are finding it harder to eat, try to make every bite count. By this I mean, if you are consuming less, make sure what you are consuming is calorie and nutrient dense. As the goal is to maintain weight, try to make sure you are limiting foods that are on the lighter side. Even so, try to think of ways to incorporate healthy added calories, whether that comes from snacks, sides, dressings, etc. As always, try to incorporate a variety of foods and colors in your diet to make sure you are getting all the vitamins and minerals you need to help fight your disease. Lastly, and if possible, try to just do it. While it may be hard to stomach now and it is clearly easier said than done, your future mind, body, and health will thank you. Additional meal and snack ideas are hyperlinked here.4
1. “Nutrition During Radiation Therapy for Head, Neck of Esophagus.” Stanford Health Care Medical Center.
2. “Eating Guide for Puréed and Mechanical Soft Diets.” Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
3. Lampe, Johanna. “Dairy Products and Cancer.” Advances in Pediatrics. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2011.
4. “Nutrition Tips for Patients Receiving Head and Neck Radiation Therapy.” UCSF Medical Center.