What to Eat When You Have Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia?

Dietary Recommendations for Better Management

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Your diet helps support your health, especially when you’re living with an illness. There isn’t one specific diet recommended for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Still, the foods you eat may help to support your treatment and overall well-being.

This article will discuss the benefits of a nutritious diet for CLL, including what foods are recommended, which to limit, the importance of food safety, and coping with the effects of treatment.

Best Foods for People with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia - Illustration by Jessica Olah

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Benefits

Many factors influence the development of illnesses like cancer. While cancer can never be fully prevented, research suggests nutrition may play a role. A 2021 study found an association between regularly eating highly processed foods and the odds of developing CLL.

The goal of nutrition during CLL treatment is to help:

  • Support your immune system
  • Maintain muscle strength
  • Ease the side effects of cancer treatment
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Protect against other health conditions

How It Works

Focusing on a healthy diet may help support your health during cancer treatment and recovery. There is no specific diet plan recommended for CLL treatment. Instead, most recommendations focus on supporting your overall health with nutritious foods.

Most important during cancer treatment is to focus on eating enough food to prevent unintentional weight loss and malnutrition. Research suggests poor nutrition during cancer recovery increases the risk for negative outcomes. Preventing malnutrition and eating enough food helps to improve survival and better health after treatment.

Your healthcare team may provide specific diet recommendations based on your health history and treatment plan. Still, these tips offer information about general guidance for diet and CLL.

Duration

The diet plan for CLL focuses on short- and long-term goals. For example, diet recommendations that focus on managing the side effects of chemotherapy will last during medical treatment and while side effects last.

Other recommendations provide a guideline for a healthy diet to support your health and well-being throughout your life.

What to Eat

Highly processed and sugary foods have been linked with an increased risk for cancer and other health conditions. The CLL treatment diet suggests a focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods. Nutrient-dense foods provide large amounts of vitamins and minerals compared to the number of calories.

Processed and sugary foods are often considered calorie-dense because they often provide fewer vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber while providing many calories.

Research suggests antioxidants may help lower inflammation, protect cells from damage, and lower cancer risk.

Some people promote following a Mediterranean diet during cancer treatment. The Mediterranean diet recommends meals rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins like fish. Research suggests the diet may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

Recommended Foods
  • Whole grains

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel)

  • Lean poultry

  • Olive oil

  • Beans, legumes, and lentils

  • Eggs (cooked until yolk is hard)

Foods to Limit
  • Refined white flour

  • Sugary foods and beverages

  • Processed foods and fast food

  • Cookies, pies, cakes, and other baked goods

  • Butter

  • Soda and sweetened drinks

  • Candy

Fruits and vegetables: Non-starchy vegetables and fruit, like broccoli, spinach, asparagus, bell peppers, apples, berries, and oranges, are nutritious and rich in fiber.  

Grains: When choosing grain products, look for whole-grain foods. Processed grains have most of the vitamins and minerals stripped away. In addition, these foods usually contain more calories and sugar that are more likely to spike blood sugar. Focus on whole grain wheat products, oats, quinoa, and other unprocessed grains.

Protein: Try to choose leaner protein foods like poultry, fatty fish, eggs, and leaner cuts of red meat. Protein supports the growth of muscle and other body functions, helping to keep you healthy during cancer treatment. In addition, try to eat plant-based protein foods like beans, legumes, and nuts.

Desserts and processed foods: Sugary foods are associated with many chronic diseases and illnesses like cancer. Try to limit the number of times you eat dessert and processed foods.

Beverages: Aim for unsweetened drinks, like water, unsweetened tea, and coffee. Try to limit alcohol consumption, juice, soda, and other sweetened drinks.

Recommended Timing

Consuming regular meals and snacks may help maintain your weight during cancer treatment and support a healthy diet. When undergoing cancer treatment, side effects like nausea, vomiting, and weight loss are common. Eating multiple small meals throughout the day may help manage these symptoms and promote weight maintenance.

Cooking Tips

During CLL treatment, your immune system is weaker than usual. Storing, washing, and cooking your food properly is essential for preventing food-borne illnesses. Handwashing before and after handling food or eating is one of the most important elements of food safety. Other tips include:

  • Wash your produce thoroughly before eating, including "pre-washed" bagged salad greens.
  • Always cook eggs until the yolks are hard.
  • Use a meat thermometer to cook meats to a safe temperature.
  • Keep all cooking surfaces clean.
  • Use separate cooking boards, knives, and utensils for preparing meats and preparing produce.

Considerations

When you’re going through cancer treatment, you may need to modify your diet from the side effects of treatment. Common side effects of CLL treatment include:

If you’re experiencing these side effects, talk with your healthcare team for tips to help manage these symptoms. Common recommendations to relieve side effects include:

  • Eat soft foods.
  • Use plastic or wood utensils if experiencing a metallic taste.
  • Choose high-calorie and high-protein foods.
  • Try different food temperatures, hot or cold.
  • Try different flavors—herbs, spices, or bland foods.

Your healthcare team may also recommend avoiding foods that are known to be risky for food-borne illness, including raw meat or seafood, raw sprouts, unpasteurized dairy products or juices, and soft or aged cheeses.

Summary

When you are being treated for CLL, follow a healthy diet that includes nutrient-dense foods and avoid processed or sugary foods. The Mediterranean diet is one eating pattern that may benefit people with cancer.

You also need to pay close attention to food safety guidelines as you will be more prone to infection while under treatment. Talk to your healthcare team about ways to address the side effects of chemotherapy or other treatments.

A Word From Verywell

Treating illnesses like cancer can feel overwhelming. It’s common to want to do everything possible to help yourself feel better and recover as quickly as possible from CLL. While diet alone can’t treat CLL, it can help support your health during treatment.

If you have any questions about your diet, be sure to talk with your healthcare team and a dietitian about the best nutrition plan for your needs. 

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ashley Braun, MPH, RD
Ashley Braun, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian and public health professional with over 5 years of experience educating people on health related topics using evidence-based information. Her experience includes educating on a wide range of conditions including diabetes, heart disease, HIV, neurological conditions, and more.