If you’re receiving treatment for cancer with chemotherapy, proper nutrition is as important now as ever. Getting enough calories and nutrients at this time, however, can be easier said than done. Side effects of chemotherapy, as well as effects of cancer itself, can affect your appetite, your tastes, and make eating uncomfortable or unpleasant.
A balanced diet, however, can help you tolerate treatment and can support your recovery, so it’s important to find ways to fuel your body even when you don’t feel like eating. Certain food choices and eating habits can help you enjoy needed nutrition while helping manage side effects of treatment.
The following tips can help you eat well during chemotherapy:
- Chemotherapy can affect your taste buds, making certain foods you once enjoyed unpalatable. Some patients complain of a metallic taste, often with water or meat. Try substitutes for foods that don’t taste right (such as chicken or another source of protein in place of meat). If plain water is no longer appealing, try adding a lemon slice to your glass or try flavored mineral water. Likewise, add different seasonings to food to enhance flavor.
- Some patients experience constipation during treatment. This can be eased by staying hydrated and making sure your diet contains enough fiber. Add fiber (such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) gradually to let your digestive system adjust.
- Diarrhea can also be a problem for patients during chemotherapy. Avoid foods that aggravate this condition. These include fried foods, caffeine, beverages high in sugar, and high-fiber foods like raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. Diarrhea can put you at risk of dehydration, so make sure to drink plenty of fluids.
- It’s possible that you may gain weight during chemotherapy. A dietician can help you adjust your diet to help you maintain a healthy weight. One common suggestion is to add more vegetables to meals and snacks.
- If you lose your appetite during chemotherapy, a dietician can help you find foods that are appealing and easy to digest. Examples include oatmeal, soups, and yogurt. You may also find that you prefer frequent small meals; make the most of what you eat with calorie- and nutrient-dense foods. Taking a short walk before meals may also improve your appetite. As well, try changing your routine at mealtime (such as eating with friends or trying a differently location) and try new foods—both may make eating more pleasant.
- If mouth sores or dry mouth make it difficult to eat, avoid foods that may further irritate your mouth (spicy foods, citrus, tomato, and alcohol, for example) and eat foods that are cool or at room temperature. Staying hydrated can keep your mouth from getting too dry. You may also want to avoid solid foods; if so juices, soups, and smoothies can keep you nourished.
- Nausea is a common complaint among patients undergoing chemotherapy. Peppermint or ginger tea can help control nausea and so can crystallized ginger (eaten or chewed). You may also feel better if you eat several small meals throughout the day and avoid large meals. Stay away from things that can make nausea worse like foods that are warm, hot, greasy, fried, or sugary.
- If you’re having trouble getting enough nutrients through diet alone, your doctor or nurse may be able to suggest nutrition supplements. Don’t, however, begin to take supplements (including vitamins and minerals) without talking to your healthcare team. Some supplements may interfere with chemotherapy, and some may be harmful at high levels.
- Talk to your doctor about alcohol consumption. Your liver may already be working overtime during chemotherapy to help metabolize potential toxins, so alcohol can be an extra burden. As well, there are other concerns about consuming alcohol during treatment, so it’s likely that you’ll need to limit intake or avoid it entirely.