Chemotherapy treatment often affects your appetite and eating habits. The side effects of chemotherapy drugs can make eating unenjoyable, sometimes unbearable. But proper nutrition is an important part of your cancer treatment. Proper nutrition gives your body energy, allows your body to heal, and keeps your immune system healthy.

Understanding how to eat a healthy diet and how to manage the potential side effects is an important first step to eating right during and after chemotherapy.

The Nutrients You Need During Chemotherapy

The main goal during cancer treatment is to eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy oils or fats. Eating a healthy diet can help give your body the energy it needs and allow it to repair and recover. Here are some general recommendations on what to eat during chemotherapy:

  • Fruits: Fresh is always best, but canned, frozen, dried, or even 100 percent fruit juice are also good choices.
  • Vegetables: Choose from dark-green vegetables (collard greens, spinach, lettuce), starchy vegetables (corn, potatoes), red and orange vegetables (tomatoes, red peppers, carrots), and beans and peas (black beans, lentils, chickpeas).
  • Grains: Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereal, and tortillas. Make at least half of your grains whole grains. Look for “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” on the food label.
  • Protein: Lean meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts and seeds as well as low-fat dairy products such as cottage cheese and yogurt are also good sources of protein.
  • Healthy oils/fats:  Good oils and fats include olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil, avocados, nuts, and fish oil.
  • Beverages: Aim to drink 8-10 ounces of fluids every day, including water, herbal tea, broth, soup, 100 percent fruit juices, milk, sports drinks, and Jell-O.

Plan ahead for what you’ll eat on treatment days. Your chemotherapy sessions can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. Most patients find that eating a light meal or snack an hour or so before treatment works best. If your treatment will take several hours, pack a small meal in an insulated bag.

Eating Well After Chemotherapy Treatments

Many chemotherapy drugs can cause problems with eating and drinking. After your treatments, you might experience appetite changes, nausea, vomiting, changes in taste and smell, and mouth soreness. Try these tips to help manage your side effects:

  • Eat several small meals or snacks throughout the day rather than large meals. Make every meal or snack count by choosing high calorie, protein-rich foods.
  • Avoid fried or greasy foods, which can be hard to digest.
  • Avoid acidic foods and drinks like tomatoes, orange juice, and grapefruit that can aggravate your mouth and stomach.
  • Drink plenty of water. If water tastes unpleasant to you, add flavor with fresh fruit, cucumber slices, or mint leaves. Or, switch to other fluids like juices, milk, sports drinks, and herbal tea.
  • Spice up bland tasting food with flavorful seasonings like garlic, dill, and rosemary.
  • Use a blender or juicer to make vegetable and fruit smoothies if mouth sores make chewing difficult.
  • Try chewing gum or sucking on mints if you’re bothered by a metallic taste in your mouth. Also try filtering your water and using plastic utensils.

Be sure to tell your oncologist or nurse if you have any of these side effects. Some of them can be treated with medications that may provide some relief. Most of the side effects will go away soon after your treatment is complete. A dietitian or nutritionist can also ensure that you get all your essential nutrients in your daily diet.

Other Ways to Get Essential Nutrients

If eating regular food is a persistent problem, talk to your oncologist, dietitian or nutritionist. They might suggest some of the following ways to meet your nutritional needs:

  • Dietary supplements or multivitamins: These are usually taken as a pill, liquid, or powder and contain all of the required daily vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. Some supplements also contain minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. Discuss doses with your dietitian or nutritionist. Megadoses aren’t typically recommended during chemotherapy as they may interfere with its action.
  • Liquid meal replacements: There are many options for liquid nutrition available in most grocery stores. Look for instant breakfast or meal replacement shakes.

Eating a nutrient-rich diet and maintaining a healthy weight should be top priority for all cancer survivors.