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The Role of Nutrition In Lung Cancer Risk Reduction and Treatment

Published: September 22, 2023

A lung cancer patient is speaking to a registered dietitian nutritionist for an individualized eating plan and nutrition advice.
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Although rates have been declining over the past 20 years in the U.S., lung cancer remains the third most common cancer in the country and has been the leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide.

There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer includes large cell and squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinoma, and accounts for 80% to 85% of lung cancers. Small cell lung cancer, a more aggressive type, accounts for about 15% of all lung cancers.

Lung Cancer Risk Factors

Common lung cancer risk factors include tobacco smoking; exposure to secondhand smoke; use of beta-carotene supplements by heavy smokers; family history of lung cancer; HIV/AIDS infection; and exposure to certain environmental factors such as asbestos, arsenic and radiation.

Nutrition Recommendations

Although more research is needed, some scientific evidence shows that eating more foods that contain carotenoids — pigments that give plant foods their characteristic orange, yellow and red hues — may help decrease lung cancer risk. Other research indicates that following a Mediterranean eating pattern — which includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish and healthy fats — may lower your risk of developing lung cancer. Fill your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables and follow these tips to incorporate more Mediterranean-style meals into your eating routine.

For those undergoing treatment, meals and snacks that are dense in calories and protein can help to maintain weight and muscle mass. Small, frequent meals and snacks may be helpful if you have little or no appetite. Speak to your health care provider if you are experiencing any swallowing or digestion issues, as a modified diet may be needed. Depending on the type of treatment, tube feeding or, in some cases, parenteral nutrition that is administered by IV may also be recommended by your care team.

How an RDN Can Help

Nutrition plays a role for many individuals during lung cancer treatment. Registered dietitian nutritionists can help people meet nutrient recommendations and offer guidance on food choices, address questions regarding the safety and appropriateness of using dietary supplements and discuss other important lifestyle factors such as physical activity.

RDNs are critical members of the interdisciplinary health care team for people who are diagnosed with lung cancer and can assess for and treat malnutrition, which affects many patients who are diagnosed with cancer. Malnutrition is linked to reduced quality of life, increased symptom severity and shorter survival rates. RDNs can help by creating a personalized plan to meet each patient’s unique health needs.

Registered dietitian nutritionists provide medical nutrition therapy, which can help patients manage any potential side effects from treatment, such as impaired taste and reduced appetite. Other symptoms that may impact eating and could reduce a person’s ability to meet nutrition needs include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea or constipation and oral problems such as dry mouth, difficulty chewing and mouth sores.

If you are undergoing lung cancer treatment and do not have a registered dietitian nutritionist on your health care team, search the Academy’s Find a Nutrition Expert database to locate an RDN near you or ask your health care provider for a referral.

Find a Nutrition Expert

Looking for credible nutrition information and recommendations? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' network of credentialed food and nutrition practitioners are ready to help!