When you’re having chemotherapy, your body needs energy and nutrients to help it cope with treatment, fight infection, repair and recover. However, the side effects of chemo can make eating well a challenge. Making some changes to how and what you eat can help to reduce the symptoms and support your recovery.
Here we look at what to include in your diet, and offer tips and advice on how to make food easier to eat and more appealing.
Why is it important to eat well during chemotherapy?
When you’re having treatment for cancer, your body needs plenty of nutrients, protein and calories to give you energy, help maintain muscle tone, ward off infection, and repair damaged tissues.
If you lose weight, it can be more difficult to tolerate treatment, and if your body is lacking in energy and nutrients it can lead to muscle wasting, weakness and fatigue, which can impact on your health and your day to day life.
Normally, a balanced diet should include some starchy carbohydrates (such as whole grain bread, cereal, pasta and brown rice), proteins (including lean meats, eggs and beans), and healthy ‘unsaturated’ fats (such as olive oil or avocado), as well as plenty of fruit and vegetables, which contain natural sugars, vitamins, minerals and fibre.
However, chemotherapy can have a number of side effects which make it more difficult when it comes to eating – including a loss of appetite, weight issues, nausea and vomiting, mouth soreness, digestive problems, fatigue, and changes in your sense of taste and smell.
How can I eat well during chemotherapy?
While you don’t necessarily have to follow a special diet (unless you’ve been advised to do so by your medical team), eating certain foods can help to reduce the impact of side effects and make it easier to get the nutrients your body needs.
You may need to make some changes to your diet as you go through treatment: for example if you have mouth issues, you may need to opt for soft, plain foods or supplement your diet with soups and smoothies. Or if you’re suffering from digestive problems, you may need to adjust the amount of fibre in your diet, and avoid certain foods that irritate your bowel. The good news is, there are plenty of things you can do to make life that little bit easier.
Chemotherapy can also affect your body’s immune system, lowering your white blood cells and making you more prone to infection. You can help to boost your immune system by including a range of fruit and vegetables in your diet, and particularly onions, garlic and carrots.
It’s also important to make sure the food you eat is safe and healthy while having chemotherapy. In particular you should:
- avoid eating raw meat or fish – make sure everything is cooked through
- avoid products containing raw eggs
- wash all fruit, vegetables and salads thoroughly before eating
- avoid unpasteurised meats, juices, or cheeses (including ‘blue’ cheeses)
- never eat food or drink that’s beyond its ‘use by’ date
What foods can help during chemotherapy?
When you’re having chemo, you many need to take on extra protein and calories. However, if you don’t have much of an appetite, or are feeling tired, it can be difficult to get the calories you need.
Choosing high calorie and high protein foods, including full fat milkshakes, eggs, butter, cheese, honey, peanut butter, cream or full fat yogurt, can help to keep you healthy and boost your energy levels.
Eating little and often is also key. If you don’t have the appetite for three main meals a day, try having 5-6 smaller meals. If you don’t feel like eating or cooking a hot meal, opt for a sandwich with some tinned meat or fish, or a tasty smoothie.
Keep a selection of tasty snacks to hand for when you do feel like something – this might include energy bars, cheese, dried fruit, or sliced veggies with a calorie-boosting dip, such as hummus or peanut butter – and try to include something at breakfast time if you can.
Smoothies and soups
Smoothies, soups, sauces and juices can be another good way of adding in calories, proteins and vitamins if you don’t feel like eating. Liquid meal replacements and supplements can also help to safeguard your nutrition levels.
When you’re having chemo, it’s very important to keep well hydrated and help flush out toxins, by drinking 8-12 glasses of water or other clear liquids, such as tea, dilute fruit juice, herbal tea, or clear broth, every day. Having a bottle of water close to hand and sipping from it regularly can help.
Nausea (sickness) is a common side effect of chemotherapy, and can make it very difficult to eat well. Many people find that eating small amounts of simple foods, such as white toast, plain yogurt and broth can help.
Some people find it helpful to eat something light a few hours before a chemo session, such as plain yogurt, fresh fruit, toast or cereal.
The Live Better With community also recommend ginger as a naturally effective way to help combat sickness. Ginger can be taken in lots of different ways, including in cooking, tea, biscuits, or as sweets or chews. Peppermint sweets and teas can also calm chemo related nausea.
If you’re suffering with vomiting, make sure you drink plenty of clear fluids. Sucking on ice or popsicles can also help.
Foods that help with bowel issues
When you’re having chemo, it’s quite common to experience problems with having a bowel movement (constipation) or issues with loose, watery stools (diarrhoea). You can help to relieve the symptoms by making some changes to your diet.
If you’re suffering from constipation, try increasing your fibre intake as this will help to keep your digestive system regular. Eat plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, ideally with the skin on. If you have trouble eating solid foods, you can try vegetable soup or fruit juices.
The Live Better With community also recommend dried fruits and fruit syrups, including apricots, prunes and figs:
“Prune juice helps with constipation, it’s quite pleasant to drink. You can also try eating prunes or figs, fresh or dried.” Gillie, Live Better With community member.
If you are at risk of a bowel obstruction (blockage), you may be advised to choose a soft, lower fibre diet, including white bread, white rice, chicken, fish, eggs or noodles. If you suffer from gas it’s a good idea to restrict foods such as dried beans, cabbage and raw vegetables.
If you have diarrhoea, it’s advisable to stick to small amounts of light foods, that are plain and easy on the stomach. Avoid hot, spicy, fatty or greasy foods, milk products, sugary drinks and desserts, or sweetened products containing xylitol or sorbitol, as these can irritate your bowel even more.
It’s also important to drink plenty of water and other clear liquids, including warm drinks, as this will help to keep your bowel moving if you are constipated, and will replace any lost fluids if you have diarrhoea. Avoid drinking alcohol or too much caffeine, as they can have a dehydrating effect and can make bowel problems worse.
Foods that help with mouth and taste issues
Chemotherapy can damage the fast-growing cells in your mouth, causing a range of mouth problems, including a dry, sore or swollen mouth, or mouth ulcers (known as mucositis). Treatment can also affect your sense of taste and smell, making foods unappealing – even foods you normally enjoy.
If you have mouth issues or problems with swallowing, you may need to supplement your diet with soft foods, purees, sauces and milk based drinks. Such foods might include:
- scrambled or poached egg
- mashed potato
- macaroni in a cheese sauce
- cottage cheese
- banana or other pureed fruit
- custards and jellies
- fruit smoothies
It’s best to opt for something plain and avoid acidic, salty, spicy or harsh foods (including citrus, tomato based foods, crisps or dry crackers) as these can irritate your mouth.
If you have a metallic taste in your mouth, you should avoid eating red meat which can make it worse – opt for other forms of protein instead. Using herbs, spices and marinades can make food tastier and more appealing. Adding salt and sugar can also make foods taste better.
If your usual favourites don’t tempt you, don’t be afraid to try something new. There are many specialist cancer cookbooks available, which offer a variety of simple and nutritious recipes.
Sucking on mints, hard boiled sweets or fresh pineapple chunks can also trick your taste buds and help keep those nasty tastes at bay.
(Please note: If side effects such as nausea/ diarrhoea are not managed, it is important to consult your doctor or treatment unit.)
Do you have any tips to help with eating well during chemo? Looking for advice and support? Why not visit the Live Better With Cancer community forum.