Lymphedema is swelling, often in only one arm or leg, that occurs when fluid cannot circulate properly and builds up in the tissues instead of being flushed out of the body. It is commonly a side effect of cancer or its treatment. If you have lymphedema, expect to be treated primarily with skintight compression garments that limit fluid accumulation and maintain the normal shape of the affected limb. Although there is no recommended diet for lymphedema, making nutritional choices that maintain the body's overall fluid balance may help.
Salt, or sodium chloride, is commonly found in many processed foods. High sodium in your diet causes water retention in your body. The more salt you consume, the more fluid you retain, which can worsen existing lymphedema. You can keep the amount of sodium you eat daily to no more than the recommended 2,300 mg by avoiding canned foods; ham, bacon and other cured meats; pickled foods; salad dressings; frozen entrees; boxed meals; soy sauce, ketchup and other condiments; and restaurant and fast food. Reading nutrition labels can help you steer clear of high-sodium items.
Avoid Excess Calories
Excess weight -- especially if your body-mass index is in the obese range -- has been linked to more severe lymphedema. Reducing your overall food intake and opting for lower-calorie food options, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, can help you lose excess weight and improve your circulation. This may, in turn, help dissipate some of the fluid contributing to your lymphedema. The potential benefits of weight loss for lymphedema do not appear to be influenced by whether you choose to limit your fat intake or just eat fewer calories overall. The authors of a research study published in March 2007 in the journal "Cancer" found that as long as both approaches result in weight loss, the effect on lymphedema is the same.
It may seem counterintuitive, but drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated may help lymphedema by keeping your body fluids and chemicals in balance. Being dehydrated gives your body another reason to retain as much fluid as it can. By making sure you stay fully hydrated, you give your kidneys the chance to flush out more of the sodium and other molecules that help attract water into your swollen limb and the rest of your body. By the same token, don't overdo it. Too much water may overwhelm your body's ability to remove it and can make swelling worse. Be mindful of that some beverages can actually contribute to dehydration, such beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks.
Eat Enough Protein
Your body needs protein to remain healthy. Eating too little protein can lead to fluid seeping from your bloodstream into your tissues, worsening existing lymphedema. The recommended amount of daily dietary protein for is 56 g for men and 46 g for women. Sources of healthy protein include legumes, eggs, tofu, lean meats, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy products. When choosing proteins, remember to also consider the sodium content. While adequate protein is important for fluid balance in the body, excess protein intake can overwhelm your kidneys and potentially aggravate fluid retention.
If you have lymphedema, you are at increased risk of inflammation and infection in the affected area. Treat any cuts or scratches there promptly. Seek medical attention right away for any signs of infection, such as increased swelling, tenderness, redness, chills fever or puslike fluid.
Is This an Emergency?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
- Canadian Medical Association Journal: Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Care and Treatment of Breast Cancer: 11. Lymphedema
- Cancer: Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing a Low-Fat Diet With a Weight-Reduction Diet in Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Salt
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Protein
- Institute of Medicine: Sodium Intake in Populations, Assessment of Evidence
- Cleveland Clinic: Lymphedema
- American Cancer Society: Lymphedema: What Every Woman With Breast Cancer Should Know