There are many misconceptions concerning which foods to eat and which to avoid when you have lymphedema. Some people recommend steering clear of sodium, others say protein. Some people even say to reduce fluid intake! What’s a lymphie to do!?
Have no fear – I’ve done a little research on the topic of nutrition and lymphedema and made a list of some quick facts and tips on how to treat your lymphedema by watching what you eat. Remember – I’m no doctor, so please do your own research if you have any questions or doubts.
First things first: there is no special meal plan that will make your swelling disappear or go away. However, there are certain eating habits that you can practice to promote good health, control your swelling, and help your body manage the stresses related to lymphedema.
- No official facts state that a low-salt diet is beneficial in controlling lymphedema – however, being cautious and limiting salt intake has helped some in controlling their swelling
- Sodium is the main component of the body’s extracellular fluids, and helps carry nutrients into cells
- Sodium helps regulate other body functions, such as blood pressure and fluid volume
- Sodium works on the lining of the blood vessels to keep the pressure balance normal
- Excess salt intake causes too much water to be drawn into the blood vessels, increasing the pressure on the artery walls and causing hypertension
What you can do:
- Consume no more than 1,500-2,300 milligrams of salt per day
- Fresh fruits and veggies are a good source of appropriate amounts of sodium
- Lymphedema is associated with the collection of high protein fluid in the tissue spaces – however, the high concentration of protein in lymphatic fluids has no connection with the protein-rich food you consume!
- Proteins are essential for rebuilding the wear and tear in your tissues and muscles
- Proteins are considered to be the building blocks of the body and play a crucial role in the manufacturing of hormones and antibodies to fight off infections
- A shortage of proteins will cause the body to take the necessary proteins from the muscles and tissues, which will further weaken the body and actually causes connective tissues to swell and your lymphedema to worsen
What you can do:
- Make sure to get your protein from a variety of sources – not just meat – and include only a minimum amount of fat
- Try easily digestible protein, such as chicken, fish, and tofu
- Having adequate fluids in the body removes impurities from the blood
- Cutting back on fluid intake in effort to reduce the swelling of lymphedema does not work! Instead, the protein-rich lymph attracts more fluid from other parts of the body, increasing the swelling in the affected area
What you can do:
- Drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily, increasing your fluid intake in hot weather or very dry conditions
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which are mild diuretics and reduce the levels of body fluids
- Excess weight gain creates more work for the lymphatic system and increases the amount of fluid in the already swollen tissues
- As more weight is gained, the fat cells in the body are enlarged while new ones are formed, meaning there is more waste to be removed by the lymphatic system
- Weight gain leads to limited mobility, which reduces the movement of the lymphatic flow and leads to stagnation and more swelling
- Weight gain can lead to other health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems
What you can do:
- Maintain a healthy, ideal body weight
- Restrict or avoid fatty foods or those with high cholesterol
- Increase low sodium or high fiber foods
- Replaced processed (canned or frozen) foods with fresh and raw potassium-rich foods, such as fruits and veggies
- Eat a balanced, healthy diet that includes whole grains, fruits and veggies, and fish – a healthy diet maintains the body’s immune system, which helps prevent and treat infections!
- Take vitamins and/or supplements, especially a multi-vitamin, vitamin C for collagen formation, vitamin A for increased cell development, and zinc for wound healing (talk with your doctor before you begin taking any supplements or vitamins, however!)
Sources used for this post were Living with Lymphedema at Cancer Supportive Care Programs, Nutrition and Lymphedema and Salt and Lymphedema at LymphNotes.
Wonderful post Alexa! “What should I eat?” was one of the first questions I (and my parents) asked when I was diagnosed, but my PT and doctors all just shrugged their shoulders and said “Good luck with that!”. I went vegan six months ago for ethical and environmental reasons. During that time, I was getting my leg wrapped. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the largest reduction in my leg occurred about a month after changing to a vegan diet! I understand it’s not a possibility for everyone (economic, lifestyle, and other reasons), but I’d recommend it to anyone with a chronic condition looking to eat cleaner and greener!
Hi Aria something similar happened to me, I changed to a wholefood plant based diet and it has had a huge positive effect on my lymphoedema.
What do you eat? it seems when I eat carbs, my arm swells up more!
Yes, the same happens to me. I swell more with carbs as well. I drink plenty of water, so I limit carbs to about once a week or less…it seems to help immensely.
I too, ethically have a difficult time giving my money to folks who cruelly farm animals. I started this simple plan weekly, and cheat with wine and beer and a bit of snacking on weekend-I have baked apple with slow cooked oatmeal, or pasture raised eggs and kale for breakfast. Lunch and dinner are salad: greens, radishes, broccoli, etc, I add wild sockeye salmon to a meal, or a hard cooked egg if it was an oatmeal morning. 3 meals, one snack-veggies like cut peppers and hummus, or celery sticks and tbs peanut butter w herbal tea. I tried it Mon-Thurs one week and felt GREAT so I continue. My belly was flat, and that’s where I swell from lymph node removal- NO DAIRY. no whey nor casein-I’m strict and for me, I see a huge difference.
Hi, I too have changed to a vegan diet, but I have also cut out alcohol, nuts, gluten, fructose and Salt. I have never felt healthier and my swelling has reduced. I would definitely recommend clean eating to manage the condition!
YES!!!! I cut out alcohol, gluten, dairy, soy products, (sneaky how this gets slipped in) , and SUGaR 4 days straight. I do have organic red wine and Ultra Light beer on weekends. As long as I keep “clean” 4-5 days, all is well. I will add, I can no longer jog, and my skin on the bad leg isnt as firm as it was. :( But I do HASfit and Denise Austin HiiT with weights and walk 20 miles a week, which is only 3 miles a night. I feel lucky.
We should stay in touch!! Good Luck Su.
I developed Lymphedema all over after a partial hysterectomy. I too have been looking for a good diet; I figured out that I am allergic to certain foods and that contributes to my swelling. I am VERY allergic to tree nuts; non organic soy is cross bred with hazelnuts; so when I started eating soy I ballooned. Gluten does too. Dairy is bad for anyone with Lymphedema; it causes mucus buildup (this does not include yogurt or kefir). I find eating complex carbs, bean protein, whey protein, vegetables and fruits work best. I do eat meat, but try to only eat grass fed varieties; same for my whey.
Michelle, I do’t know how I got connected with you, but thankfully, a message about lymph. and diet came to me. I too avoid dairy, and I find a grass fed protein, (non-whey) smoothie in am, then shrimp and greens for lunch, salmon and broccoli dinner keep me lean. I try to stay on this type of plan Mon-Fri. I exercise everyday. I’m post secondary-I have full hysterectomy due to cancer tumor. Lets stay in touch. I’m in VA-where are you?
Hi Debra, Thank you for your response; I would like to stay in touch. I’m in NM. I have Primary Tarda Lymph; in other words it is supposedly genetic and not due to the surgery; I don’t and haven’t had cancer. I was in a car accident in 2009; which crunched the nerves in my right leg, so I am partially paralyzed now. This does not help me with my weight..at all. I am working presently on trying to find a surgeon who has the ….. to do surgery on my knee and nerve. Amazing how lymph scares those surgeons.
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Great information… Thanks..
Hello…I gave lymphedema what I don’t know is what stage it is right now..thanks very much for the advice I will follow all the rules.
As someone who works with cancer survivors the challenge with lymphedema is a constant question. I found your article well researched however it would be useful to add that plant based protein is the most beneficial protein for those who are battling lymphedema.
Lord knows, Americans get more than enough protein through meat and dairy. For anyone who is interested in reading about the connection between animal protein and cancer, check out the book “Whole” by Colin Campball.
Thank you for the tip on plant-based protein, Faith! I will definitely be looking into that book.
I’m very interested as I’m battling lymphedema myself. Thank you for the post! I’m researching a lot in regards to nutrition and protein.
Check out Dr Michael Gregor, Nutrition Facts.org
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I am reading this while having an afternoon snack: a piece of dark chocolate with hazelnuts and a coffee with cream… Not the perfect combo for such a condition as lymphedema, is it? This is my guilty pleasure I still indulge in sometimes – I think I will do a big coffee+chocolate “party” for myself before giving it up, going cold turkey and see how my body reacts to that. One thing I can positively say that it makes a difference: coconut oil. Maybe the main reason for having a coffee right now is not really the pick-me-up effect (I just had a wonderful shower with a longer dry brushing session than normally and feel fresh as a rose bud), but yesterday I got a new jar of coconut oil after taking a 10-day-or-so break from this heavenly smelling, fatty yumminess and now just can’t get enough of it. A teaspoon of coconut oil in my coffee – ahhh! I can’t say for sure that it makes coffee a health drink but through the chock full of benefits coconut oil has, I chose to afford the black brew from time to time. One addition or suggestion for correction for this article would be about fats: it says “include only a minimum amount of fat” but there are huge differences between fat and fat! Coconut oil, for one, is one of the healthiest thing on earth you can put into your body and it will not only not make the burden on your lymph system worse but will help you to eliminate debris that clog it up. Another point where opinions and experiences can differ is the question of salt. Again: not every salt equals salt equals salt. The qualities, the properties and so the effects on our bodies of various salts are astonishingly different. The white, refined crystal which is sold as table salt, can’t be mentioned on the same day as a few other types of salts with rich mineral content and which are in fact essential for the body: for example Himalayan pink or black salt, Celtic salt and one or two others. Drinking lots of water without the proportionally right amount of salt will throw the body fluids out of balance. Recently I am more conscious of how much water I drink and to each cup of water I put a pinch of pink Himalayan salt – it doesn’t change the taste much but MY LEGS LOVE IT! On the days when I do have the proper amount of water with that pinch of salt, my legs behave much better, and on the days when for some reason I am behind with the water intake and my legs get heavier, I remember to drink my salty water and my legs will be grateful for it immediately. Overall, this article is great summary of what should one eat, and these two points would be my addition, I highly recommend to try them.
Sorry but that’s not correct re coconut oil. It is VERY unhealthy to consume, it is 90 something% saturated fat, apply it topically by all means. Check out Dr Michael Gregor nutritionfacts.org
Dr Michael Gregor is an animal activist and who happens to also vilify fats. Science does not support low fat since all hormones and the brain require huge amounts of fat. Many levels of epilepsy are also completely controlled on extremely high fat diets. The areas of the world that live on coconut are heart disease free and largely cancer free…
Coconut oil is a medium chain triglyceride and the body cannot use that to make lymph/chyle. It is very good for those w/ lymphedema.
One more thing. Actually, I have so good experiences with these two nutritional items: coconut oil and pink Himalayan salt that for whatever reason I ever got into the situation of having to survive without any food for a week or two, I would make sure I have access to water and have enough of these two with me.
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I suffer now dr gave mi stockings an cream as legs looked like a snake they burne continuously so heavy an red nurse did my legs cream an out on stockings I struggled to roll ov. Every other day but yesterday went an they sed that’s it we can’t do any more sorry. Ask a neighbour aged 62. An now abondoned the socks an cream as can’t do either Way do I do now
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I incurred lymphedema , secondary, post cancer surgery/lymph node removal. This plan I’m on has helped me NOTICEABLY- I have always avoided eating animals but eat salmon and Argentinian fresh caught shrimp. I have a pea/rice protein shake in am, with blueberries and almond milk. At lunch I have a big salad, radishes, romaine, onions, peppers, olive oil and vinegar, and 3-6 oz salmon, dinner, broccoli, raw cashews, shrimp. I grill the shrimp and broccoli. As a snack, I have raw broccoli or celery dipped in hummus. I drink water and lemon all day-in 4-5 days, my stomach and bad leg are back to normal, and my stomach is FLAT. I am 120 lbs, and have always taken care of myself, but the lymphedema bloat was unmanageable until I cut out dairy, alcohol, and sugar. I lighten up Friday night and Saturday-pretty strict Sunday-Friday afternoon.
I also do yoga, and dry brush a few times a week, since I cannot dance, or jog like I did before. I walk ALOT, 20 miles per week, give or take a mile. Good Luck!
Hi There, I have primary Lymphoedemia in both Lower legs since the age of 11. Im now 45 and have dedicated my life to trying to control My Lymphoedema. Diet and body weight is a huge part of our disease and i have Systematically isolated foods to try and discover the magic bullet in regards to reduction of swelling. The best results i ever had was on a 27 day water fast! Yes, yes, way too extreme but it led to an interesting conclusion. All food,all drink will negatively affect your swelling if consumed in such a way it over loads your Lymphatic system. Smaller meals, less consumption equals less swelling. I trialed this on myself and my Mother who also has Primary in both legs. I am currently writing a paper on all my findings and tests i have done over a 30 year period and will let you guys know when its completed. Great site, keep up the good work.
Stevie , Byron Bay Australia.
so can you please share the results with us?
it’s a constant battle – that’s all i can say. I also have primary – so does my twin. I don’t know how you do it – living in OZ with the heat – I find the heat impossible with my lymphedema. Thanks for the post – I do find the same – it’s such a delicate balance. The one thing I have found that gets the lymph flowing is – light aerobic – and raising legs quite high at night. Looking forward to the results of your findings and tests
I took have primary lymphedema. Hope you post results.
Hi Stevie, how’s the paper coming, I am very interested
Enjoying comments and wondering if Lymphedema is what I have. For about 1 -1/2, I have been experiencing feelings of swelling, heaviness and tightness in my arms,hands, legs and feet. So, much so that it causes pain at night to lay too long on one side and have to switch because it hurts. I have not been diagnosed with :Lymphedema but after my doctor has done diabetes, nerve testing, and other tests, I think she is now resorting to sending me to a Lymphedema clinic. I mentioned to her that I had a Thermography test that revealed my Lymphatic system was blocked.
Of course, she told me that she has never heard of it. So, she started what any other doctor would do and start testing. Now , we are to the point where she thinks it just might be Lymphedema. I go back to see her next week so, Hopefully, she will send me to the Lymphedema clinic to get diagnosed. I just want to know what it is I have so I can get started with treatment.
Also, it seems like something as small as bumping my toe hurts really bad. Any pain inflicted now seems like the intensity is 100 times worse. Is that another symptom? Any comments welcomed!
My hubby has this condition, (lower leg, diabetic related lymphedema) and is being treated quite well, by the VA Hospital here in NYC. We use the lymphedema pump device, which massages both his lower legs and helps him a great deal. Each person is unique and so, of course no two sets of symptoms are alike. That said – I am still amazed that many Doctors are ill-informed about lymphedema. Which certainly does not inspire confidence when you are suffering and trying to get some answers. I am glad that you are curious and you sound proactive as well. Stay with it, do the research, remain positive and focused on wellness. BTW if your instinct tells you something is not right – speak up! Eat wisely, exercise as much as comfort will allow, drink water, don’t smoke, and feel free to reach out and share with others in the lymphie club. I think we can back each other up and there is a lot of fellowship out here in ‘Lymphie Land’..Best …
I did the 10 day “reset” by Arbonne. I’ve always loved this Canadian based company bc they do NOT test on animals. I chose my own plan of 2 shakes per day, some herbal flush toxins tea, and a nice dinner: Fish and big salad, strawberries for dessert….I will say, I dropped swelling inches FAST and I normally eat well. However, I’d do this again WITHOUT the shakes bc I think VEGAN PROTEIN has better shakes w/o sugar. Either way, you are right: Listen to our body.
I actually can tell you that I have greatly benefitted from eating a very specific plant-based diet and it’s been wonderful. My protein levels have remained healthy as has my calcium.It has greatly reduced inflammation. Since you wrote this article there are more and more of us eating plant-based (no oil, whole foods). If you wish, please message me. I have a blog on here called The Unlikely “No Meat Please” Gal. The photos show everything and give details.
I’m interested-I have a clean, no meat diet with tons of veg, but I avoid dairy, and if I’m consistent, it works. I’m post secondary from cancer surgery.
I would love to see your blog. Having horrible time with lymphedema post breast surgery. It got worse 4 years since surgery, chemo ,and radiation.
Cindy, I have been struggling with this condition for several months. It sounds as if a plant based diet could be of great benefit
I would be so appreciative if you could direct me to your blog. Thank you
I have secondary lymphedema in both legs, groin, pelvic bone, stomach and buttocks. This is as a result of cancer surgery, radiation and lymph node removal. I have had it for about 1 1/2 years. I have also developed IBS. Currently I am trying to eat plant based primarily and no gluten. Any info on diet etc would be greatly appreciated.
I have celiac and lymphedema in july I went gluten-free, I eat anything gluten-free. I n 5 months my legs and ankles went from looking grotesque to almost normal.
we have it in exactly the same places…..I see you!!! Im fairly new in my Lymph journey, but damn does it blow. I found a great Physical Therapist who helped me wrap my head around it. Hope you are managing well. xxoo KT
My dad has horrible lymphodema on his neck after throat cancer and removal of lymph nodes. He is diabetic. Will massage it but refuses to drink water or lay off the sugar and carbs ( he want to live in Pepsi, cookies and bread). Instead of getting better over last year it’s worse. No one can convince him to change his habits. Any other advice on what to do?
Wow I am so grateful I stumbled on this article and able to read all your replies! I also have the genetic lymphedema. I was the one that finally had to tell my mother that she has the same. She suffered for years not having a clue. I just had ice cream 3 days ago and I have been paying the price ever since. I think a plant based diet is definitely where I am headed after reading that many of you have had success! I would also like to stay in touch with the women here to have some support and to support! I am from Washington state.
I messaged you :)
If someone could possibly give me some tips on a basic vegan diet simplified to start with….tell i can do some more research of my own. I would love to get some feed back
I can give you what worked for me if you want to e mail me: email@example.com. I won’t get to type everything out until Monday as we are moving. Please note, I caught mine early but it did pack 40 lbs of fluid lymph fluid retention on me in ICU during chemo. Mine is secondary.
Hi I suffer from lymphadema as well in both legs I’m looking for information on what to eat and no eat what worked for you might work for me could you please send me the info??
I’m looking for a diet for lymphodema as well
Have in both lower legs.
Been on fresh fish and chicken and veggies and sweet potatoes and lots of salads . Drink water all day.
Have 1 knee replacement and that leg is the worst right now. Will be seeing the specialist tomorrow, I have been wearing compression sock for 5 years now but taking them off before bed and wake up with the swelling and redness with bumps.