Cancer Nutrition Consortium

What to Eat During Cancer Treatment

June 18, 2020

Grocery store shelf

Mae Reilly, MS, RD, LDN

When undergoing cancer treatment, many individuals are curious about what they should be eating. The goal is to help patients maintain their nutrition status while keeping in mind any side effects from treatment they may be experiencing that can impact their food choices.

If you are tolerating a regular diet and are not experiencing side effects from treatment or your diagnosis, start by balancing your meals to maximize your nutrient intake. Aim to build plates at mealtimes with 50% of your meal coming from colorful vegetables or fruit, 25% from whole grains and 25% from lean proteins. Whole grains include brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, millet, and whole grain breads and cereals. Consuming a diet rich in plant-based foods provides you with fiber and immune supporting phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are natural compounds found in plant-based foods that give plants their rich pigment. Each color has different benefits, so aim to include a variety of colorful vegetables and fruit throughout your day. If you are having a hard time tolerating raw vegetables or if they are not appealing, try including cooked vegetables in soups, omelets, or pasta dishes.

Next, include a lean protein source at each meal and snack. Protein is necessary for the growth and repair of all cells in your body. Meeting your protein needs-during cancer treatment will help support your immune system, help maintain your lean body mass and promote healing. Animal sources of protein include chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt. Plant based foods can also help meet your protein needs including nuts, nut butters, seeds, beans, lentils, hummus, soy foods, and quinoa.

Adequate hydration is also important, especially during cancer treatment. Drinking enough fluid can be challenging for patients who experience side effects from treatment including nausea, vomiting, decreased appetite, taste changes, and/or diarrhea. Some of these side effects can increase the risk of dehydration which in turn can make it hard for the body to flush out chemotherapy or other medications and may put unwanted stress on the kidneys. If drinking water is challenging try increasing your consumption of other liquids including herbal teas, broth, soups, sparkling water, or smoothies. Try infusing your water with sliced fruit, mint, or a splash of juice to give it some flavor without too much added sugar.

There are several side effects from treatment that may impact one’s desire or ability to meet their nutritional needs. Many patients find it helpful to consume smaller, more frequent meals. This eating pattern can be easier to tolerate if you are experiencing a decreased appetite, nausea, or if you are feeling full quickly. Instead of consuming three meals per day, try consuming five to six “mini meals”.  Including healthy fats like nuts, nut butters, avocado, olive oil, and hummus is one way to sneak in more calories in small portions. Adding these foods to your meals and snacks can help maximize your oral intake and help prevent unintentional weight loss. If eating is challenging, smoothies can also be helpful to include for calories, protein, fluid, fiber, and immune supporting phytonutrients. Meeting with an oncology dietitian at your cancer center is the best way to receive individualized recommendations based on your unique situation.