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Eating During Cancer Treatment


What kind of meal plan should I follow during cancer treatment? Cancer treatment can cause several side effects, such as changes to your appetite and problems eating. The side effects of cancer treatment are not the same for everybody. Side effects depend on the part of the body being treated, the type and length of treatment, and the treatment dose. Your meal plan during cancer treatment should have enough calories and protein to help you heal and maintain your weight. During cancer treatment, you may need to try foods and drinks that are not part of your usual diet. Ask your dietitian about the best meal plan for you during cancer treatment.

How should I eat if I have a decreased appetite? Your caregivers may want to check your weight often, and have you eat high-calorie foods if you are losing weight.

  • Eat small meals or snacks every few hours, rather than large meals. Plan to eat as much as you can during the time of day when your appetite is best. Keep favorite foods on hand.

  • Ask your caregiver if you should add extra calories to your foods. You can do this by adding butter, margarine, milk, cheese, sour cream, eggs, and mayonnaise to main dishes, sandwiches, and salads. Add honey, jam, sugar, granola, and dried fruits to desserts. To add extra protein, add dairy products, such as cheese, milk, nonfat instant dry milk, ice cream, and yogurt. You can also add instant breakfast powder, eggs, nuts, peanut butter, meat or beans for extra protein.

  • Nutrition supplements may help you get the extra nutrients you need if you cannot eat enough food. Nutrition supplements provide extra calories, protein, vitamins and minerals.

  • Drink only small amounts of liquids with meals, or drink liquids between meals because liquids can make you feel full.

How should I eat if I have nausea or vomiting?

  • Eat small meals every few hours instead of large meals. Choose dry or bland foods, such as toast, crackers, pretzels, yogurt, cream of wheat, boiled potatoes, rice, and noodles. Foods that are cold or at room temperature may be easier to eat than hot foods.

  • Fatty, greasy, spicy, high-fiber, and gas-producing foods may make nausea worse. High-fiber foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain cereals and breads, and beans. Gas-producing foods include cabbage, broccoli, and dried cooked beans. Drinks that contain alcohol may also cause nausea.

  • Avoid foods that have strong odors. Let someone else prepare meals, and avoid being around the smell of food until it is time to eat.

  • Do not lie down right after you eat. If you need to lie down, use several pillows to keep your head high. Your caregiver may be able to order medicines to decrease or prevent nausea.

  • Drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids lost during vomiting. Drink sips of clear liquids such as water, sports drinks, water, apple juice, and broth.

How should I eat if I have diarrhea?

  • Drink plenty of caffeine-free liquids to prevent dehydration. Good liquids to drink are water, diluted juices, broth, and caffeine-free tea or coffee.

  • Eat 5 or 6 small meals each day instead of large meals. Include foods that are low in fiber, such as mashed potatoes, yogurt, noodles, applesauce, toast, cottage cheese, rice, eggs, and cream of wheat.

  • The sugar in milk products (lactose) can cause some people to have more bowel movements. If you have problems with lactose, try drinking milk that has the lactase enzyme added to it. The lactase enzyme helps your body digest the lactose found in milk products. You may also choose to switch to lactose-free milk for a period of time.

How should I eat if I have constipation?

  • Increase the amount of liquids you drink. Ask your caregiver how much liquid to drink each day. Drink a hot liquid about ½ hour before the usual time that you have a bowel movement.

  • Ask your caregiver if you may increase the amount of fiber in your diet. Extra fiber may help you to have more bowel movements. Some high-fiber foods include bran cereal, raw fruits and vegetables, cooked dried beans, and whole-grain breads. Prune juice and prunes may be especially helpful. Talk with your caregiver about using a fiber supplement or laxative.

  • If you are able to, increase the amount of physical activity that you do every day. Walking, swimming, and biking are exercises that may decrease problems with constipation.

How should I eat if I have thick saliva or a dry mouth?

  • Eat soft, moist foods. Moisten dry foods with sauces, gravies, and salad dressings. These foods can also help to lubricate your mouth and make it easier to chew and swallow foods. Take a sip of liquid with every mouthful of food to help you chew and swallow the food.

  • If you are able to, eat citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, or grapefruits to make more saliva.

  • Rinse your mouth with club soda or baking soda mixed with water throughout the day.

  • Drink plenty of caffeine-free liquids throughout the day to decrease mouth dryness.

  • Suck on hard candy or chew sugar-free gum to help make more saliva if you have a dry mouth. Avoid salty foods, drinks that contain alcohol, and mouthwash, because they can dry your mouth.

How should I eat if I have trouble swallowing? You may need a swallowing test to find out what kinds of foods and liquids are best for you. Eat small meals that are high in calories and protein every few hours. Drink liquids between meals instead of with meals to avoid getting full too quickly. Eat moist foods, or make dry foods moist with gravies, sauces, and dressings. Ask your caregiver what consistency your foods should have.

How should I eat if I have a sore mouth, tongue, or throat?

  • Eat foods that are soft, moist, and blenderized (foods thinned in a blender), because they are easy to chew and swallow. Use liquids to moisten dry foods. Drink plenty of liquids.

  • Avoid foods and drinks that can increase mouth and throat pain. This may include foods and drinks that are spicy, salty, acidic, very hot, or very cold. Acidic foods include tomatoes, oranges, and other citrus fruits. Do not eat foods that are crisp or tough. If you take a vitamin and mineral supplement, crush it and add it to a food.

How should I eat if my sense of taste or smell changes?

  • Try different flavors like tart, salty, or sweet to find foods that you like. Try adding seasonings and flavorings to make foods taste better. If meats taste like metal or are bitter, try serving them cold or at room temperature. Add meat to casseroles or marinate meats in pineapple juice, wine, or other liquids before cooking to improve the taste. If you cannot eat meat, choose other foods that have protein in them. Some examples are cheese, milk, pudding, yogurt, shakes, eggs, nuts, and tofu. Eat with plastic utensils to decrease the taste of metal in your mouth.

  • Drink plenty of liquids. Drink liquids with meals to decrease the bad taste in your mouth. Foods that are cold or at room temperature may taste better than hot foods. Make foods less salty or less sweet if these flavors taste bad. Eat more of your favorite foods and comfort foods.

  • Brush your teeth and rinse your mouth often between meals to help decrease the bad taste in your mouth. Rinse your mouth with baking soda mixed in water.

How should I eat if I gain too much weight? Choose healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. These foods are naturally low in calories and are high in nutrients and fiber. Choose low-fat foods, such as skim or 1% milk, low-fat yogurt, poultry (chicken or turkey) without the skin, and lean red meats. Eat smaller portion sizes. Try measuring the serving size listed on the food labels of the foods that you eat regularly. This can help you to keep track of the amount of calories you are eating. Ask your dietitian for more information about a meal plan that is right for you.

What are some other guidelines for healthy eating?

  • People who are going through cancer treatment may have a hard time fighting infections. It is important to try to prevent infections and food poisoning. To prevent food poisoning, wash all raw fruits and vegetables very well. Scrub the surface of melons before you cut them. Wash your hands before and after you prepare foods, especially after you handle raw meat. Wash all surfaces where food was prepared, such as the countertop and cutting boards. Thaw meat in the refrigerator instead of on the counter. Cook meats and eggs very well. Do not eat raw shellfish. Juice, milk, and cheese must be pasteurized to be safe.

  • Cooking food takes effort and can use up your energy. Buy foods that need little or no work to prepare. Keep many kinds of food on hand, and try new things often. Packaged puddings, cheese sticks, peanut butter and cracker packs, frozen entrees, and high-calorie nutrition supplements are some examples.

  • Ask family and friends to help you shop for food and keep a good supply of things you like at home. Ask others to help you make batches of food and freeze extra for later.

When should I contact my caregiver? Contact your caregiver if:

  • You vomit for more than 3 days in a row.

  • You cannot swallow food at all.


You have the right to help plan your care. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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