When you’re dealing with tough side effects from chemotherapy, like taste changes or mouth sores, food may be the last thing on your mind. But good nutrition is essential to help restore and support your body during treatment. In fact, research suggests that taking in enough calories and nutrients can reduce treatment side effects and delays.
Knowing the best foods to eat during chemotherapy will help you understand your needs and keep up with a rigorous treatment plan.
Think Small for Big Results
Loss of appetite is a common side effect of chemotherapy, yet calorie and protein needs are higher with a cancer diagnosis, especially during treatment. While sitting down to a large plate of food can be overwhelming and unappealing, eating small, manageable portions of high-calorie, high-nutrient foods is a good way to get the most nutritional bang for your bite.
The Best Foods for Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is designed to target rapidly dividing cancer cells. So unfortunately, your mouth and digestive tract, which are lined with healthy, rapidly dividing cells, take a hit during treatment.
Changes to how food tastes and feels in your mouth are common side effects and can make mealtime feel like a guessing game. What will taste good? What will feel good? Smooth, mild, creamy and cool foods are often best tolerated, making them a great place to start.
And if foods you normally like have a funny taste, play around with herbs, spices, sea salt, lemon juice and pure maple syrup until you find a flavor that hits the spot. You can also try these generally well-tolerated foods:
During treatment, your body needs a little extra protein to manage all the extra work it’s doing fighting cancer cells and taking care of your healthy ones. Eggs are mild, soft and high in protein — a winning combination for nutrition during chemotherapy. Try packing hard-boiled eggs for a snack in between appointments, scrambling eggs with a variety of spices or enlisting a friend or family member to make a frittata for dinner.
Smoothies are a great way to incorporate fruits and veggies in a mixture that’s cold, creamy and refreshing, even when you don’t feel like eating. They are also filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and electrolytes.
A smoothie made with the right combination of ingredients can keep you hydrated and help take care of your healthy cells during treatment. A winning blend includes:
- 1 cup liquid like water or almond milk
- 1 cup leafy greens
- 1 1/2 cups frozen fruit
- Optional add ins: protein powder, hemp seeds, chia seeds, ginger root
While a fancy blender is nice, it’s not required to whip up a delicious smoothie. In fact, blenders with single serve cups make cleanup a cinch on days when everything feels like a chore.
Yogurt includes probiotics, which means it is a source of the good bacteria your gut needs to support healthy immune function.
Can’t tolerate or don’t care for dairy? No problem. Dairy-free yogurts are made from plant milks like coconut, almond and hemp. While many contain the same beneficial probiotics, be sure to read labels because they are often higher in sugar and lower in protein than cow’s milk.
Soup is often overlooked as a superfood for chemotherapy: In addition to being warm and comforting, it packs a powerful nutrient punch. Broth-based soups are a great source of electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, nutrients that keep you hydrated.
A big batch of soup will last for several meals and requires minimal effort. If you’re making soup at home and are sensitive to smells, use a slow cooker in a well-ventilated room to minimize unwanted aromas.
Chemotherapy can disrupt the digestive tract, slowing things down for some and causing others to constantly run to the bathroom. Fiber found in whole grains, especially oats, can help keep your bowels regular.
Both hot and cold cereals serve as a nutrient-dense meal or snack during treatment. Cereals that are whole-grain, high in fiber and low in sugar are the best choices. Plain or dressed up with fresh berries and a handful of walnuts — the choice is yours.
Adding milk will also add some extra nutrition. Choose ultra-filtered milk for extra protein without the high sugar content. You may also consider plant-based milks, such as coconut milk: They’re a good source of medium-chain triglyceride fats and are easy to digest.
Nuts are an easy way to boost calories, protein and healthy fats. They are also a source of omega 3s, which help reduce inflammation associated with cancer and cancer treatment.
Dry-roasted and raw nuts are prepared without unhealthy oils and are the best choice — and walnuts are one of the superstars of the nut family due to their anti-inflammatory omega 3 content. Consider packing nuts for a snack on treatment days, adding a handful of walnuts to a salad or topping your yogurt with slivered almonds.
Bread is a familiar and comforting food for many people. High in fiber and a great source of protein and B vitamins, whole-grain bread can be a great food for chemotherapy.
Whether you’re enjoying a chicken sandwich or nibbling on a slice of toast to settle your stomach, whole-grain bread can add extra nutrition to your meal. To make the best choice, look for varieties with 3 grams of fiber or more per slice.
Eating Well Can Mean Feeling Better
Including well-tolerated and nutritious foods to your diet can help you stay strong during treatment. Eating regularly, staying well-hydrated and maintaining muscle mass will help you feel as good as possible during chemo, so you can spend less time on the couch and more time doing the things you enjoy. Our care team is here to help, wherever you are on your cancer journey.