Think about the last time you felt sick: Did you want to eat a lot of solid food, or were you reaching for liquid options like soups, smoothies, even ice cream?
“We often reach for liquids because they’re a little more gentle on our GI tract,” says Melissa Bailey, RD, LDN, clinical nutrition manager of Kate Farms. “They’re not as aromatic, and a lot of times they can be tolerated better.”
Same goes for patients who aren’t feeling their best because of cancer treatment. Many experts suggest incorporating liquid nutrition products into their eating plans. Here’s what you need to know about them—and how to pick the right one for you.
1. Liquid Products Pack a Nutritious Punch
Many cancer patients struggle to swallow (and keep down) chewable food during treatment, which is why liquid nutrition can be such a lifesaver. And depending on the formula you choose, it can be an easy way to get the supportive nutrients—vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, fiber—your body needs to fight the cancer, Bailey says.
Think of it this way: While you could drink a milkshake or eat a bowl of ice cream to deliver the calories you need, high-quality liquid nutrition products deliver a one-two punch of calories and nutrition. Just as much effort on your part, but double the reward.
It’s also important to remember that, while “healthy eating”—a diet high in fruits and vegetables, full of fiber, and low in fat and refined sugar—is important for helping to reduce the risk of other health conditions (such as diabetes and heart disease), it is not the same as “eating for health,” says Mark Windle, R.D., nutritionist for Fitness-Savvy and a dietitian with the Health Care Professions Council in the United Kingdom.
Patients should be focused on the latter during their illness and treatment, he says, as weight maintenance and preservation of lean body mass is important at this time.
2. They Allow You to Consume a Lot of Calories Quickly
Decreased appetite can be a real struggle for patients, yet it’s important to get in a ton of calories to help prevent weight loss (or gain back what may have already been lost). Bailey says liquid nutrition can help patients stay on top of calorie intake because, depending on which you choose, there can be anywhere from 250 to 600 calories in one shake.
Case in point: Kate Farms Standard 1.4 “You get 500 calories in one serving, which is just like a meal in shake form,” Bailey says. Consider it a really nice way to quickly add in calories without having to prep and eat a meal.
3. There’s No Prep or Cleanup
Another benefit to liquid nutrition: portability. Rather than having to consciously sit down and eat—which can feel taxing when you have a high-calorie goal to hit each day—liquid nutrition is easy to take on the go, Bailey says.
Then you have something to sip on throughout the day, helping you hit your goals without constantly feeling full. And they’re easy to grab and go, so you can bring them with you to your treatment.
4. The Labels Reveal a Lot
While your doctor or dietitian will help you decide the appropriate amount of carbs, fat, and protein—along with the best vitamins and minerals—Bailey says it’s important to peek at the ingredients list of liquid nutrition products to make sure those nutrients are all coming from high-quality sources that are as close to whole foods as possible (whether it’s the actual whole food or an extraction).
An ideal way to do that? Pronouncing all of those ingredients. Aside from vitamins and minerals, which often have weird names, you should be able to easily pronounce and understand exactly what it is you’re reading, Bailey says. “With the Kate Farms label, for example, you’re going to see pea protein, MCT from coconut oil, vanilla flavors, things like that.”
Be on the lookout for drinks that are more calorically dense too, because, again, you have to get a lot each day. Windle says to steer clear of anything with the word “diet” on it, as well as “low-fat” or “low-sugar.” Bailey agrees, noting that they tend to be lower in calories, so you get a lot fewer calories for the same amount of product.
5. They’re Extremely Versatile
First, there are a few flavor options to choose from, and Windle suggests rotating as many as you can tolerate to avoid flavor fatigue. But there are also multiple ways to ingest liquid nutrition because, well, it’s liquid. Sure, you can drink it straight up in its natural form, and you can always sip it throughout the day, but Bailey says you can also pour it over cereal or ice (anecdotally, she notes some prefer it super cold).
One of Bailey’s favorite suggestions: Use it as a base to a smoothie, blending it with your favorite fruits, cocoa powder, peanut butter, and other nutritious fill-ins. (Smoothies are a great way to sneak in spinach for an extra serving of veggies, for example.)
“That way, you can get a lot of calories and add in other ingredients you enjoy as well,” she says.