Essential Nutrients for Cancer Treatment in Children

Fruits, vegetables, cereals, and legumes are essential nutrients for cancer treatment in children. Keep reading to learn more.
Essential Nutrients for Cancer Treatment in Children

Last update: 07 June, 2023

Nutrition is a fundamental link that favors the growth and development of infants, children, and adolescents, including those with cancer. An adequate intake of these compounds helps to maintain a good nutritional status, which is undoubtedly an integral part of the therapy against this disease. Therefore, it’s a priority to include in the diet the essential nutrients for cancer treatment in children.

What are these essential nutrients? In this article, we’ll give you the general guidelines to adapt their intake to these special health conditions.

The importance of nutrition in cancer treatment in children

Nutrition is part of the development of any child throughout their growth stage. In addition, in cases of illness, it’s part of the integral treatment to restore health. As stated in the journal Pediatric Blood & Cancer, proper nutritional care is necessary in order to cope with the side effects of chemotherapy.

Lack of appetite, mouth or stomach conditions, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation, among others, worsen the disease. In fact, it’s well-documented that malnutrition is a common complication of pediatric neoplasia and its treatment. In order to maintain an optimal nutritional status, it’s crucial to focus on the supply of compounds that compensate for the child’s health situation. These nutrients are conveyed through food.

Discover the essential nutrients for cancer treatment in children

A dietitian nutritionist is the professional indicated to help understand the individual needs of each child and provide guidance regarding their dietary plan. However, here are some general guidelines on nutrients to consider during cancer treatment in children.


Boiled eggs.
Egg whites contain all 20 amino acids that the body needs to fulfill its functions, so they’re considered a reference protein.

Proteins are the nutrients that allow cells to grow, repair damaged tissues, or build blood cells, among other functions. When there’s a lack of appetite, the body uses its own muscles to obtain them and further compromises the state of health. The best proteins can be found in foods of animal origin. These contain almost all the essential amino acids for the body to function properly.

Egg whites are considered a reference or complete protein. In addition, lean red and white meats and dairy also have good-quality protein. In the case of vegetables, legumes should be combined with grains to increase their biological value. For example, lentils or chickpeas with rice. In addition, soy and nuts are also good sources.


Children always require more calories per kilogram of weight than adults because they’re in the process of growth. In this regard, carbohydrates are the nutrients in charge of providing them. Particularly, pediatric oncology patients require more energy than usual, so it’s crucial to increase between 20 and 90% more calories.

Fruits and cereals are good sources of carbohydrates. Some are ready to be absorbed, such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose from fruits; while others, such as starch from cereals, take a little longer. In addition, fiber is a carbohydrate that also benefits oncology patients and is found in bran, fruits, and vegetables. Soluble fiber allows the regulation of digestion and is present in cereals and legumes.


Fats in the diet take fuel to the body. Polyunsaturated fats, such as those in seed oils, and monounsaturated fats, such as those found predominantly in olive oil, are recommended. Also, essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6, should be supplied by the diet. They help synthesize cells and produce hormones. They’re found in corn, sunflower, canola, soybean, and cottonseed oil, among others.

Avocados, nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, and almonds), and oily fish also contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. In addition, fats carry fat-soluble vitamins.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals are the micronutrients that regulate the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. All individuals should meet dietary requirements, but in oncology patients, medications can deplete calcium and vitamin D. Both of these nutrients are involved in the health of children with cancer, and both nutrients are involved in bone health.

A little girl eating banana and drinking milk.
In the diet, dairy is the best source of absorbable calcium. In case a child requires any vitamin and mineral supplement, it’s the treating physician who should indicate it.

Tips to combat lack of appetite

Lack of appetite in children with cancer hinders the arrival of nutrients to the body. For this reason, here are some tips:

  • Offer food in small portions and several times a day (at least 5 times). Calories should be increased, but not the volume of the dish. Therefore, you can add olive oil, butter, nuts, or powdered milk, among others.
  • Take advantage of the meals for which the appetite is greater in order to include extra calories and nutrients with the preparations.
  • Substitute foods with strong flavors and smells for others that provide the same nutrients.
  • Offer foods at room temperature.
  • Avoid acidic foods when there’s discomfort in the mouth.
  • Serve drinks after meals. In cases of mouth lesions or dryness, offer sips with meals to help with swallowing.

Tips to curb excessive appetite

During cancer treatment, children may receive steroids. These medications can increase appetite and many times, calories are consumed without nutrients. To avoid this, the following recommendations can be followed:

  • Eliminate soft drinks and sweets, as they don’t provide nutrients, but do provide calories.
  • Serve healthy snacks, such as whole-grain bars, milkshakes, or fruit in natural compotes.
  • Fruits and vegetables that are sources of fiber should be served at the beginning of meals, as well as whole grains. This will help to take away hunger.
  • Establish fixed times for each meal.
  • Encourage activities that keep you distracted from thinking about food.

Apply dietary strategies

The increased caloric and nutrient needs in pediatric neoplasia should be addressed with personalized dietary strategies. This will help to achieve faster recovery, tolerate treatment, and improve quality of life.

A minimum of 2 servings of protein foods, 5 servings of vegetables and fruits, 6 servings of grains, and 1 serving of legumes should be included per day. These are the essential nutrients for oncological treatment in children. Also, enough water should be drunk, as it helps to eliminate toxins from the body, avoid constipation, and regulate body temperature.

The food plan and dietary supplements that may be necessary should be prescribed by the family physician and managed by the nutrition professional.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.