DIY Ensure for Chemo

An unexpected health crisis will soon have me taking care of someone as he undergoes chemotherapy for lymphoma. It’s turned my life upside-down and inside-out, but he’s going to be tackling this thing head on and I’ll be running interference for many months.

Even before his treatment’s even started, his appetite is beginning to go and his tolerance for different kinds of foods is going down. I expect that he won’t be interested or able to eat solid food very often going forward, so like most folks I looked into stocking up on the usual meal replacement drinks like Ensure. Unfortunately, a quick glance at the ingredients list had me balking.

The stuff is mostly soy byproduct, an ingredient cancer patients need to steer clear from, and the second ingredient is sugar, which is unacceptable as well. (There’s been no formal link established between cancer cell growth and sugar, but measuring the increased glucose metabolism of cancer cells is exactly how detection via PET scan literally fucking works, so… I’d really rather not risk throwing more fuel on the fire if at all possible.)

And that’s besides the fact that ready-to-drink meal replacement shakes are expensive as hell. So I thought… why couldn’t I make my own? It can’t be any harder than making a smoothie.

There are 4 primary components that go into these things:

  • Macros: Protein, fat, and carbohydrates (and fiber, which isn’t technically a nutrient)
  • Micros: Vitamins and minerals
  • Taste and mouthfeel
  • Ease of use

Plus my 5th consideration:

  • Cost

Several of these are more easily included than others, or may compromise another part of the equation (like, say, needing to use a perishable ingredient would necessitate more steps, or using a certain brand of vitamin supplement that makes the price per serving go up). I knew going in that I wanted to wind up with a dry mix made from as many whole ingredients as possible, and where every component was shelf stable. Oh, and it had to be as cheap as possible.

After some thinking, here’s the base I came up with:

  • 3 tbsp vanilla whey powder, sweetened with stevia
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds
  • 1 tbsp fine-ground flax meal
  • 1 packet Ener-C

That I could then add one or more of four extra, shelf-stable ingredients based on their benefits and his mood:

  • 1/2 tsp matcha powder (for antioxidants and energy, though apparently it’s most readily bioavailable when paired with citrus…)
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter (for more macros)
  • 2 tsp chocolate/cacao powder (for taste and antioxidants)
  • A dash of cinnamon (for antioxidants, and a buttload of other stuff)

Finish with:

  • 1/2 can of full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 c water

Combine with immersion blender in a mason jar. No vitamix necessary.

All in all, I could ballpark a single serving of this at around $1.75 CAD for the base mix + coconut milk, depending on the brand of milk I use and whether or not I feel like buying organic. The single most expensive part of the dry mix is the Ener-C, which runs about .50c a packet at the drug store. The extras add a negligible amount to the overall cost in the end, and again depends on the quality/brand I decide to go with. Hershey’s baking cocoa is obviously going to be cheaper than raw, organic cacao powder for instance.

Preparing the drink should be easy. Combine several servings in a jar, mix thoroughly, and when ready to serve, count out 6 tbsp, and blend with the other ingredients. While adding fruits and vegetables would be ideal, it probably wouldn’t be appetizing, and I also wouldn’t be able to use an immersion blender (which is why I’m specifically leaving out frozen ingredients too), which makes cleanup something I can do in seconds. Using frozen fruit or veggies like a traditional smoothie would also mean that I couldn’t stick leftovers in the fridge and expect them to taste good later.

Shopping entirely at Costco, I could probably shave off another dime or two from the price, which is probably something I’ll look into when I run out of the ingredients I already have. Still, at less than a toonie per serving, this DIY meal shake costs just as much as a bottle of Ensure but is made with way better ingredients.

Coupled with some herbal supplements like curcumin, garlic, and ginger, well… I hope that it makes the projected 18 weeks of chemo just that much more bearable.

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