How to eat well during chemotherapy

Making every mouthful count with energy and nutrient-rich foods is an effective way to help fuel your body during cancer treatment.

Nutrition is an important part of cancer treatment, as eating a nutrient-rich diet during chemotherapy can help you feel better and keep up your strength to cope with any side effects. Even though nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite may mean eating is a challenge, there are some things you can do to make your diet as healthy, and palatable as possible.

Why is eating well important?

Your body needs a healthy diet to perform at its best, and this is even more important if you’re undergoing chemotherapy.

“Food, drink and nutrition is the fuel to give us strength, so if we’re not getting as much in as we need, we will often feel worse,” says accredited Bupa dietitian Gemma Cosgriff. “Eating well can also help you maintain muscle mass and immunity so you can get through the treatment and out the other side with less of a negative impact.” 

Tips for maintaining a healthy diet

During chemotherapy, you may have good days and bad days when it comes to eating, and you may need to experiment and change your eating habits. You might prefer to have your main meal in the morning or snack lightly throughout the day, rather than eat three main meals. Eat when you feel able and enjoy a variety of whole foods, including plenty of fruit, vegetables, lean meats, whole-grain cereals and low-fat dairy products.

Plain, low-odour foods are often more appealing during chemotherapy. “It’s common for people to suffer from nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and lack of appetite, so it’s about making every mouthful count and choosing foods that don’t have too much odour or flavour, as you may not want to stimulate your senses too much,” says Cosgriff. It’s also helpful to have bland, soft foods if you’re experiencing side effects such as mouth sores.

She recommends focusing on foods that are rich in energy and nutrients. “Food is fuel for your body, and even though it may not taste amazing, try to get those mouthfuls in and make them worthwhile. It’s worth trying not to have foods that are full of energy but don’t have many nutrients – instead it’s about trying to eat nutrient-dense and energy-dense food.”

''Food is fuel for your body, and even though it may not taste amazing, try to get those mouthfuls in and make them worthwhile.''

Nuts and dried fruit

Swap nutrient-poor fried foods and baked goods for a vegetable omelette, muesli with yoghurt, nuts and dried fruit, or hummus or avocado and tomato on wholemeal toast. If you don’t have a big appetite, avoid filling up on liquids at meal times; and stay hydrated by sipping on water or tea in between meals and snacks.

A weakened immune system can put you at increased risk of food poisoning, so it’s important to take extra precautions when preparing food, cooking and storage. “When your immune system is lowered, you want to make sure that everything is as safe as it can be, and that includes food preparation, food handling and making sure food is cooked properly,” says Cosgriff. 

If you don't feel up to cooking yourself, don't be afraid to reach out to friends and family for help. The app Thrivor lets you add your support network and easily let them know what you need.

Getting the most nutrition and energy into each mouthful of food is one of the most effective ways to ensure adequate nutrition during chemotherapy.

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