Diet rich in antioxidants can help prevent infection during pediatric leukemia treatment

A healthy diet that includes foods rich in antioxidants can help kids undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) reduce the risk of infection and inflammation in the digestive tract, according to a recent study.

A healthy diet that includes foods — not dietary supplements — rich in antioxidants can help kids undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) reduce the risk of infection and inflammation in the digestive tract, according to a recent study.

A diet with foods rich in vitamin A, alpha and beta carotene, and carotenoids resulted in reduced risk of bacterial infections among the more than 500 children studied over a two-year treatment period for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Eating foods with more vitamin A, vitamin E, zinc and carotenoids led to a lower chance of developing mucositis, an inflammation of the mucous membranes that line the digestive tract, the study found.

There is a vital distinction between foods and supplements like pills. Antioxidant pills and other supplements are suspected of either blocking chemotherapy receptors or even fueling growth of certain cancer cells during treatment.

“This study demonstrated that a high intake of antioxidant-rich foods may decrease the rate of infection and mucositis during pediatric ALL treatment, but did not find the same benefit from consuming antioxidants in supplement form,” said Jaclyn V. Moore, M.S., R.D., CSO, a clinical nutritionist with Norton Cancer Institute Resource Center.

About half of children undergoing chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia get bacterial infections. About half also get mucositis as a chemotherapy side effect.

Antioxidant-rich foods are thought to protect cells by neutralizing damaging chemicals in the body. While antioxidant supplements may work against cancer treatment, this study found that the healthier diet did not alter the children’s rate of relapse.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a common childhood cancer, with a better than 90% survival rate.

Eating well during cancer treatment has other benefits, according to the American Cancer Society. It can help people with cancer feel better, give them more strength and energy, and help the body heal and recover faster.

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Diet to reduce risk of infection and inflammation during acute lymphoblastic leukemia treatment

  • Beta carotene and carotenoids are the colorful yellow, red and orange pigments found in vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, mangoes and oranges. They act as antioxidants, protecting cells.
  • Foods high in alpha carotene, also considered an antioxidant, include pumpkin, carrots, butternut squash, tangerines, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and avocado.
  • Sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe, red peppers and mangoes are vegetables and fruits rich in vitamin A.
  • Sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and peanut butter, spinach, broccoli, kiwifruit, mango, and tomato are all good sources of vitamin E.

According to one of the lead authors of the study, it’s OK to put cheese or other ingredients on the vegetables to make them more palatable to children.

Researchers have found many children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia have low bone mass after treatment, possibly as a result of a poor diet. Fewer than a third met the recommended daily requirement for bone-building foods — lower than the general population.

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Many become obese during or after treatment, which lowers their chance of survival from the disease.

Families can contact their child’s oncologist at Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, to discuss a referral to work with a pediatric dietitian.


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