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The Lymphedema Diet: Building a Stronger Immune System

20th January 2023

There’s an old adage that says you are what you eat. And this has become an important aspect of people with lymphedema – whether in the initial or advanced stages. Lymphedema manifests itself as swelling in the limbs, feelings of heaviness and tightness, restricted range of motion, fibrosis and recurrent infections. Since lymphedema is related to the body’s lymphatic system, it can be thought of as the plumbing in the body.

It deals with fluid transportation and removal. But when there are clogs in the plumbing, swelling can occur. A healthy lymphatic system is extremely important for the body’s immune system. And this means that if you have this condition, a healthy lymphedema diet could go a long way to helping you live a healthier life. To find out more about the right and wrong foods for lymphedema, take a look below.

How do you get rid of lymphedema fast?

There are several causes of lymphedema and the short answer to the question “how do you get rid of lymphedema fast” is that you can’t as yet. Research shows that there is currently no cure for this progressive condition.

However, there are ways of managing it and this includes a healthy diet as this is considered a key part of the condition’s management. Of course, the outlook for lymphedema will greatly depend on the severity of the symptoms.

But being careful and conscious about what you put in your body can help you deal with the symptoms better.

What foods should you avoid if you have lymphedema?

If you have been diagnosed with lymphedema and you’re looking for ways to manage your condition, then following a lymphedema diet is one step in the right direction. But first things first. Are there any foods that you should keep off your plate if you have lymphedema? Experts believe there is. Numerous studies carried out on patients with lymphedema have determined that some of the following food types should be avoided altogether or consumed in very minimal quantities if you wish to manage your condition better. Here is a brief list of the most important ones that you should avoid:

  • Processed foods: these range from those which have high added sugars including baked goods, granola and breakfast cereals. Others include condiments such as ketchup, barbeque sauce or marinara sauce. In addition to these, you should also avoid chips as well as processed meats including bacon, sausage and hotdogs.
  • Grains with gluten: found in most breads, cakes, cookies, breakfast cereals, crackers, pasta, pies and others. You should also avoid gluten-free food substitutes.
  • Conventionally raised meat/red meat: this includes beef, veal, pork and lamb, that are said to contribute to lymphatic problems.
  • Drinks: yes, it is true that caffeine-rich and alcoholic drinks can help you get rid of fluids in your body. However, their consumption leads the lymphatic tissue to dilate and this results in increased swelling. Consequently, sweet drinks, soft drinks, teas, coffee, fruit drinks, soy milk, beer, liquor, mixed drinks and wine coolers should be avoided.
  • Too much salt: because salt promotes fluid retention in the body, it can exacerbate lymphedema symptoms. Salty foods or those that are rich in sodium should be avoided or limited as much as possible.
  • Toxic transfat: also known as artificial trans-unsaturated fatty acids, this is a group of foods that don’t spoil for long periods of time. They are said to be highly inflammatory, and as such, they should be avoided.
  • Sugars: the lymphatic system can experience tissue damage as a result of an increase in glucose levels in the body. High glucose levels cause the formation of glycation end products. These are pro-inflammatory pathogens that can cause damage to skin tissue. Furthermore, they are also said to cause damage to nerves, blood vessels, retinopathy as well as diabetic-related complications. Fructose is another culprit in this category and should also be avoided.
  • What about juices and juicing?: this is only recommended for people who are unable to eat solid food. Juicing tends to break down fiber, which is an important nutritional health benefit. Therefore, fruit juices should be kept to a minimum as opposed to fresh, whole fruit.
  • Other foods to be avoided: these include, artificial sweeteners, conventional dairies such as butter, ghee, processed cheeses (except kefir and yogurt), soy, and foods with long-chain fatty acids including oils and fat-based ingredients in salad dressing and other foods, nuts, eggs, oils and condiments, dried fruit, fried foods, and cooking fats.

What foods are best for lymphedema?

Having covered what to avoid consuming, let’s take a look at what you can and should be eating on a lymphedema diet.

  • Lean meats: poultry and fish
  • Coconuts and coconut oil, coconut, almond and hemp milk
  • Bright-coloured vegetables and dark, green leafy vegetables: beets, corn, squash, peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms and herbs.
  • Beans, legumes and pulses
  • Berries: blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.
  • Citrus fruits: grapefruit, orange, etc.
  • Fresh fruits: apples, apricots, bananas, cherries, grapes, kiwi fruit, mangoes, melons, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, etc.
  • Sweet potatoes or yams
  • Grains: these include whole grains that do not contain gluten and may include amaranth, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, sorghum, teff and wild rice
  • Fermented foods: kefir and yogurt with active cultures, sauerkraut, dill or sour pickles, kimchi, etc.
  • Tea: black, green, herbal, red, white, Yaupon, ginger, cleavers, chamomile, peppermint, echinacea
  • Herbs and spices: echinacea, astragalus, wild indigo root, goldenseal, cilantro, poke root, parsley, grape seed, red clover, burdock root, cleavers, calendula, poke root, dandelion, devil’s claw (harpagophytum), turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, rosemary, black pepper, cardamom
  • Vitamins and minerals: iron and riboflavin, vitamins A and D, vitamins E and C, vitamins K, B1, and B6 along with the minerals copper, zinc, selenium and zinc.

What foods drain the lymphatic system?

Some of the top foods and drinks that are highly helpful in draining the lymphatic system include the following: water, extra virgin olive oil, lemons and limes, oranges, apricots, berries, leafy greens, seeds (e.g. pumpkin and sunflower), garlic, herbs and spices, brown rice, avocado, ocean vegetables (seaweed, spirulina, kombu, etc.) and nuts (peanuts, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, etc.).

Does drinking lots of water help lymphedema?

Water has been mentioned several times in this article and it is strongly related to a healthy lymphedema diet. Why? Because having sufficient fluids in the body helps remove impurities in the blood. Although it may seem counterintuitive, by cutting down on your water intake to reduce swelling actually does not work. What tends to happen is the opposite effect: protein-rich lymph attracts more fluid from other parts of the body. This ultimately results in increased swelling in the affected area. This is why drinking at least eight glasses of water per day is highly recommended for flushing out toxins such as sodium.

Is there a lymphedema diet?

In short, there is no special lymphedema diet or meal plan to reduce swelling or make it disappear altogether. But by practicing healthy eating habits, you’ll be able to promote good health, keep the swelling under control as well as enable your body to manage the stresses associated with lymphedema.

Final thoughts

Although there may not be one diet that is the end-all and be-all of lymphedema, there are many options you have in order to manage your condition and the swelling that it is associated with. A lymphedema diet or meal plan should ultimately include the healthy foods mentioned above, whereas the unhealthier versions of foods and drinks should be avoided altogether. Staying hydrated is especially important for those with lymphedema. But remember to avoid alcohol, caffeine and sweetened drinks. The healthy recommended dose of at least eight glasses of water a day should help keep your system clean of toxins.


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