Nutrition is an important part of cancer prevention, treatment, and recovery.
Cancer symptoms and treatment side effects may cause changes to appetite, digestion, and weight.
Eating healthy foods before, during, and after treatment can help you feel better and stay stronger.
Preparing for treatment can get stressful.
Here are some tips to help you get ready so that you feel more in control:
If your treatment includes radiation to the head or neck, you may be advised to have a feeding tube placed in your stomach before starting treatment to allow feeding if/when it gets hard to swallow.
Eat foods that are high in protein and calories to keep your strength, rebuild tissues impacted by cancer treatments, and combat fatigue.
Fun Fact: Did you know cancer increases protein needs by 25-50%?
Eat when you have the biggest appetite. For some people, they notice eating before treatment is better while others notice after-treatment they can eat more. It can help to continue to attempt to eat small snacks as this sometimes turns into being able to eat a whole meal. Being physically active can help improve your appetite. Tell your doctor if you cannot eat for an entire day.
Have calm and pleasant meals. Eat with people whose company you enjoy, give yourself plenty of time to eat unrushed, and eat foods that look appealing.
Aim to diversify. By eating a variety of foods, you can get the nutrients your body needs to fight cancer including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
Note that it is okay if you cannot eat a lot of different foods; eat the foods that feel good for you until you are able to eat more types.
Drink a lot of liquids. Fluids are essential - if you don’t drink enough fluids or if you lose fluids through vomiting or diarrhea, you can become dehydrated – meaning that your body doesn’t have as much fluid as it needs to function properly. Drinking liquids is even more important on days when your appetite is low, or you physically cannot eat. You may find this easier to do if you keep a water bottle nearby. If you have trouble remembering to drink, set a timer to remind you to take frequent sips. During meals, try to sip small amounts of liquids. You may feel too full if you eat and drink at the same time. If you want more than just small sips, have a larger drink at least 30 minutes before or after meals.
If you are looking to increase calories, you can choose liquids that add calories and other nutrients. Examples include juice, soup, milk, and soy-based drinks with protein. You may notice that by changing the form of a food, it may be easier to ingest nutrients. For instance, you might make a fruit milkshake instead of eating a piece of fruit, or you can eat softer or frozen foods such as yogurt, milkshakes, popsicles, protein shakes, or smoothies when it is more difficult to eat or digest.
Eat smaller meals. Many people find it is easier to eat smaller amounts more often – such as 5 or 6 smaller meals each day instead of 3 large meals.
Keep snacks nearby. Take easy-to-carry snacks such as peanut butter crackers, nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit when you go out or when you do not feel like eating larger meals.
Many eating problems should improve once you finish treatment, such as decreased appetite or mouth sores. Some issues, such as changes in taste or weight loss, extend beyond the duration of treatment but reconcile over time. If you have experienced surgeries that impact digestion processes, such as removing organs, you may experience life-long changes to appetite, weight, or ingestion/digestion. Eating healthy post-treatment can help with regaining strength, rebuilding tissue, and increasing energy.
Develop a post-treatment meal plan that is right for you. Here are some tips to consider:
Remember to prepare simple meals that you like and are easy to make. You can cook 2 or 3 meals at a time and freeze the extras to eat later – by stocking up on healthy frozen dinners and buying or preparing pre-cut vegetables and fruit, you reduce the likelihood of skipping meals or overeating less healthy food options. Meal preparation is key to success!
Some providers recommend a special diet for patients diagnosed with cancer. Here are some commonly recommended diet plans – they include an overview, easy-to-follow recipes, and helpful tips. It is important that you adhere to these recommended diet plans ONLY when prescribed by your provider; if you are unsure, you should consult with your provider.
If you experience nausea or vomiting, it may be difficult for you to hold down food and you may notice that some foods may worsen your symptoms. The BRAT diet is a short-term diet that is recommended to help reduce digestive symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The BRAT diet is an acronym for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast. Beyond just those four foods, the BRAT diet promotes a bland diet which includes other easy-to-digest, low acid, and low fiber foods that give your digestive system a chance to rest and heal. If you experience diarrhea, the BRAT or bland diets may help your digestive system break down food better, absorb nutrients, and solidify your stools.
It may be helpful to limit being around foods with strong or even mild odors to limit stomach upset. Your doctor may prescribe an antiemetic (anti-nausea) medicine to help with symptoms. You can also try using the herb ginger for nausea relief, either as a ginger-flavored hard candy, ginger tea, or fresh ginger root in food.
Here is a list of recommended foods to reduce nausea, vomiting or diarrhea:
It can be hard to cook when you're not feeling well, so cooking larger batches to freeze or having a loved one or caretaker help with preparation can make eating nutritious meals more accessible.
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 teaspoon fresh savory or thyme, chopped
2 large, diced white potatoes
⅓ cup plain Greek yogurt
6 cups stock, vegetable or chicken
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, plus more for garnish, chopped
Calories 150, Fat 6g, Saturated Fat 1g, Polyunsaturated Fat 1g, Monounsaturated Fat 3g, Carbohydrates 17g, Sugar 6g, Fiber 1g, Protein 8g, Sodium 359mg
The DASH diet, which stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” is an eating plan designed to prevent or treat high blood pressure, also called hypertension. It is known to help lower cholesterol, also linked to heart disease and stroke.
The DASH diet focuses on consumption of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains that are rich in minerals such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium. It includes fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. The DASH diet does not require any specific foods; instead, it provides daily and weekly nutritional goals.
Here is a look at the recommended servings from each food group for a 2,000-calorie-a-day DASH diet:
The DASH diet limits salt (sodium), added sugars (such as sugar sweetened beverages), and saturated fats (such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils i.e. coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils). The standard DASH diet limits salt to 2,300mg a day, equivalent to approximately 1 teaspoon of table salt. The lower sodium DASH diet limits salt to 1,500mg a day. You can choose the version of the diet that meets your health needs.
In order to reduce your salt intake, DASH suggests reading food labels and selecting low-salt or no-salt-added options. The DASH diet also recommends using salt-free spices and flavorings, as well as choosing fresh or frozen vegetables instead of pre-seasoned ones. Limit your restaurant food – if you do choose to eat out or get food delivered, ask for dishes with less salt and ask not to have salt added to your order.
Since drinking alcohol can increase blood pressure, the DASH diet also recommends limiting alcohol to no more than two drinks per day for men (assigned male at birth) and no more than one drink per day for women (assigned female at birth).
Here’s a blend of seasonings you can use instead of salt when trying to cut back on sodium.
5 teaspoons onion powder
3 teaspoons garlic powder
2½ teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoon dry mustard
1½ teaspoon crushed thyme leaves
½ teaspoon white pepper
¼ teaspoon celery seed
The low-calorie diet, also called the weight-loss diet, involves limiting the overall number of calories you eat or drink in a day to lose weight. If you were overweight at the time of your cancer diagnosis or underwent cancer treatment that caused weight gain (such as hormone therapies or steroids), you may want to talk to your provider about going on a low-calorie diet. The low-calorie diet helps people prevent weight gain during treatment, lose weight after treatment, and reduces risk for prostate, ovarian, endometrial, and other cancers. Since obesity is also linked to poorer prognoses for several cancers, such as breast, colon, esophageal, and tongue cancers, losing weight may also improve prognoses. The low-calorie diet prioritizes avoidance of high-calorie foods, ongoing monitoring of portion sizes, and eliminating added sugars.
This is the recommended food and beverage list for a low-calorie diet:
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
Calories 286, Fat 11g, Saturated Fat 4g, Polyunsaturated Fat 2g, Monounsaturated Fat 5g, Carbohydrates 39g, Sugar 14g, Fiber 5g, Protein 12g, Sodium 89mg
Fiber is the part of plant-based foods that is not digested by your body. Dietary fiber is often found in fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, and whole grains.
When you are recommended a low-fiber diet, your provider is asking you to reduce the amount of fiber in your diet to rest your bowels – meaning, they are suggesting that less undigested material moves through the large intestine so that your body makes less stool.
A low-fiber diet may be recommended on a temporary basis for several conditions or situations, specifically after some types of surgeries, treatments that damage or irritate the digestive system (such as radiation), or if you have diarrhea, cramping, or trouble digesting food. It is sometimes called a “restricted-fiber diet” or “low residue diet”.
Sometimes once your digestive system has rested, you may be asked to start adding more fiber back into your diet.
A low-fiber diet typically limits the types of vegetables, fruits, and grains and encourages foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, tender meat, fish, poultry, ham, tofu, eggs, and creamy peanut butter. Baked goods made with refined wheat or rye flour are allowed, as well as cereals that have less than 2 grams of dietary fiber in a single serving and are made from rice. Butter, margarine, oils and salad dressings without seeds are also permissible. It is recommended to have no more than 1 to 2 grams of fiber in one serving and to choose foods that you would normally eat (do not try foods that caused you discomfort or allergic reactions in the past).
Recipe for Egg Salad
3 Hard Boiled Eggs
1 celery rib, diced
1 small shallot, minced
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed well
2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
Sea salt, to taste
5 to 6 basil leaves, washed and shredded
2 slices white bread
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
Calories 127 calories, Fat 8g, Saturated Fat 3g, Polyunsaturated Fat 1g, Monounsaturated Fat 3g, Carbohydrates 6g, Sugar 3g, Fiber 1g, Protein 10g, Sodium 281mg
A neutropenic diet is typically recommended for people with weakened immune systems, specifically before and after certain types of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, to help protect them from bacteria and other harmful organisms found in some food and drinks.
This diet should be followed until the provider tells you to resume your regular diet.
The neutropenic diet recommends:
You may consume:
When prescribed a neutropenic diet, it is also recommended to be extra mindful of your food handling as follows:
Broccoli & Pine Nut Pasta Recipe
3 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 head of diced broccoli
8 ounces whole wheat pasta (you can also try lentil or chickpea pasta for extra protein!)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves diced garlic
1 tsp red chili flakes
3 tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
Calories 336, Fat 13g, Saturated Fat 2g, Polyunsaturated Fat 3g, Monounsaturated Fat 7g, Carbohydrates 49g, Sugar 3g, Fiber 3g, Protein 13g, Sodium 443mg
A soft food diet may be recommended if you have recently had surgery (i.e. mouth, head, neck, stomach) or underwent radiation therapy to the head, neck, or stomach. There are two main types of soft food diets:
Regardless of your recommendation, it is still important to eat a balanced diet and integrate a variety of foods, when able. Avoid foods that are difficult to chew such as nuts, seeds, and snack foods like popcorn, chips, or granola bars. It is important to make sure that you are getting enough nutrition:
On a soft foods diet, you should also aim to drink 8-10 glasses (8 oz) of water or liquid in addition to your nutritional items.
Frozen Fruit Smoothie
1 cup frozen berries
½ cup liquid of choice
1 cup spinach
½ frozen banana
¼ cup protein powder or ½ cup Greek yogurt
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
Calories 583, Fat 17g, Saturated Fat 8g, Polyunsaturated Fat 3g, Monounsaturated Fat 2g, Carbohydrates 61g, Sugar 33g, Fiber 11g, Protein 30g, Sodium 784mg