6 Tips for Eating During Cancer Treatment
If you are going through treatment for cancer, there's a good chance you'll have eating problems at some point. Both radiation and chemotherapy can affect the cells in your mouth and digestive tract, causing food to be unappealing or not taste like it used to. Also, your energy levels might change, making you so tired that eating feels like a lot of work. But eating nutritious meals and snacks is more important than ever during treatment.
One thing to keep in mind is that every person is different—there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to eating when you have cancer. Allow yourself some grace as you figure out what your body needs. Someone with a more aggressive form of cancer, like metastatic breast cancer, or a more aggressive treatment plan will likely have different needs than someone with early-stage cancer or someone undergoing a less aggressive treatment plan. Be sure to talk to your medical team about your nutrition questions and concerns. There are ways you can combat some other common eating challenges that come along with cancer treatment.
Here are some tried-and-true tips to help you optimize nutrition to help your body get the nutrients it needs to heal and get stronger.
1. Include Protein in Every Meal
Protein has many functions, such as helping your body repair damaged cells, preventing infections and slowing weight and muscle loss—all important for optimizing your treatment. For a little extra protein:
- Sprinkle nuts or cheese onto casseroles or vegetables
- Boost sauces with dry milk or protein powder
- Add legumes, like beans and lentils, to soups and salads
- Snack on nuts, yogurt, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and protein bars
Related: High-Protein Dinner Recipes
2. Get Enough Fluids
Fever, vomiting or diarrhea, which are common cancer treatment symptoms, can make you dehydrated. Keep a bottle of water handy and sip frequently. Decaf tea and coffee are also great choices, and fluid-rich foods like watermelon, tomatoes and soup count too. Go easy on sugary drinks.
3. Stoke Your Appetite
If you don't feel like eating, getting fresh air and doing physical activity may boost your hunger level. When you do eat, go for small portions, which won't seem so overwhelming. Try a smoothie or some soup if solid foods aren't appetizing. Make the most of mornings, when appetite and energy levels are often highest.
4. Experiment with Different Tastes
Cancer treatments can affect how food tastes and smells. Some people experience a metallic taste, while others find that food tastes overly salty, sweet or bitter. To lessen metallic taste, avoid canned foods, use plastic utensils and glass cookware, and add a squeeze of lemon or a little vinegar to meals. Tame bitter flavors with a little salt or sugar. Try new dishes and play with spices.
Related: Healthy Herb & Spice Recipes
5. Seek Out Easy-to-Swallow Foods.
Dry mouth and a sore throat are common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Try soft foods like pasta, soups, stews, yogurt, fruits and well-cooked vegetables and purees. Alternatively, moisten your foods with gravies and sauces. Your healthcare team can help you with other solutions like soothing mouth rinses and "thickeners" to add to foods so they're easier to get down.
6. Eat for Your Specific Digestive Issues
You may deal with one or more of the following gastrointestinal issues during your treatment:
- Nausea/vomiting: Your healthcare team can help you manage this with medication. Consider smaller, more frequent meals and easy-to-digest foods like saltines, pretzels, rice or potatoes. You can also try eating foods warm or cool versus hot and cold.
- Diarrhea: You might be prescribed to eat a low-fiber diet, including easily digested foods like chicken-and-rice soup or cottage cheese, plus plenty of fluids. Yogurt can help replenish "good" bacteria in your digestive tract.
- Constipation/abdominal pain: Boosting fiber intake with veggies and fruits (avoid those causing gas) can help, as can getting plenty of fluids and physical activity and starting your day with a hot beverage.