Frozen fruit pops and a bowl of strawberries on top of a cutting board.Share on Pinterest
Frozen fruit pops can be a tasty way to boost your fruit intake. Nadine Greeff/Stocksy United

If you’re going through breast cancer treatment, it might be hard to eat the way you typically do.

The disease can make you feel too fatigued to go grocery shopping, let alone cook. Some breast cancer treatments can also leave you with nausea, low appetite, and a sore mouth.

However, eating a balanced diet is particularly important when you have a serious disease like breast cancer. Getting adequate nutrients can boost your energy levels and help your body heal from treatments.

When you’re living with breast cancer and undergoing treatment, you might not always feel up to spending lots of time in the kitchen — and that’s OK. You may be able to arrange for food delivery from a professional service or ask loved ones to pitch in.

But when you’re feeling well enough to cook, here are some specific recipes that can help you adjust to certain challenges of breast cancer.

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Baked oatmeal. Photography by Carly Werner

Nausea is a common side effect of many chemotherapy meds. You may find it easier to eat several small meals, rather than a few big meals, made from simple ingredients throughout the day.

A classic baked potato, for example, could be a tolerable small meal when you’re feeling nauseous.

Here are some other recipes to try when you have nausea:

  • Chicken rice soup. This classic soup is easy to digest and comforting with mild flavors. This recipe makes a big enough batch for leftovers to freeze.
  • Lemon smoothie. The tart smell and taste of lemon in this smoothie may be helpful for nausea. Plus, it might be easier to sip a nutrient-rich beverage rather than chew food.
  • Baked oatmeal. The soft texture and flavors of this oatmeal may make eating more tolerable when you’re feeling sick.

Severe nausea can make it very difficult to eat an adequate amount of food. If you’re regularly coping with this symptom, get in touch with your cancer care team. They may be able to prescribe medications to ease nausea.

Here are some other tips for eating when you’re feeling nauseous from cancer treatment:

  • Try bland, simple foods that don’t have strong smells.
  • Avoid foods that are high in fat or spicy.
  • Sniffing fresh lemon, sipping ginger ale, or chewing ginger candies may help.
  • Eat in a comfortable place that isn’t too hot or stuffy.

Many people with breast cancer have changes in their appetite. You may not be interested in eating or find yourself feeling full more quickly than usual.

It’s important to find ways to adjust to a low appetite, though. Giving your body the nutrients it needs is important when going through treatment and coping with the stress of an illness.

Here are some tips to help with low appetite:

  • Set a timer to remind yourself to eat every few hours.
  • Make food more appealing by adding sauces, oils, cheese, or dressings. This can help boost flavor, calories, and nutrients.
  • Go for a walk or get some fresh air to see if this helps to boost your appetite.
  • Make meals more pleasant by eating with someone or while watching your favorite show.
  • Consider smoothies or shakes if drinking feels easier than eating.
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Coconut banana muffins. Photography by Carly Werner

Here are some recipes with plenty of calories and protein to help you make the most of each meal:

  • High protein mac ‘n’ cheese. Cheese, milk, and Greek yogurt make this mac ’n’ cheese a protein-packed meal. This recipe has several optional add-ins, so you can customize it to your liking.
  • High protein blueberry smoothie. Try sipping this smoothie throughout the day for some extra nutrition.
  • Coconut banana muffins. There are plenty of nutrients in these muffins, which freeze well for a quick snack. Smear on some peanut butter to boost the protein content.

Research suggests that eating more fruits and vegetables may improve survival outlook in people with breast cancer.

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Fruit salad. Photography by Carly Werner

Here are some recipes that star fruits or vegetables:

Here are some other tips for adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet:

  • Wash and chop vegetables and fruit ahead of time so they’re ready to eat.
  • Add extra veggies to pasta or rice dishes.
  • Frozen vegetables and fruit eliminate the need for washing or chopping, so they can be helpful to keep on hand.

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Smoothie bowl. Photography by Carly Werner

One common side effect of chemotherapy is a sore mouth or throat, which can make it hard to eat. Damage to cells in those parts can cause discomfort, but it usually goes away after you finish treatments.

If you have a sore mouth, you may find it easier to eat soft, textured foods that aren’t too acidic or spicy. It may also be helpful to cut food into small, bite-sized pieces and use sauces or gravies to soften your foods.

Here are some recipes to try if you have a sore mouth during breast cancer treatments:

  • Smoothie bowl. This is a simple smoothie bowl without any citrus, which can be irritating. If the consistency is still too much, you can add more liquid and drink it with a straw.
  • Muffin tin eggs. This recipe comes in three different versions, so you can make a version with flavors you love. Depending on how your mouth feels, you can keep the recipe even simpler, with just eggs and cheese.
  • Butternut squash soup. This soup is creamy and smooth with a mild flavor. Like most soups and stews, it freezes well.

Cancer-related fatigue is not your everyday kind of fatigue. This is the completely-out-of-energy kind of tired that makes it hard to do anything. When you’re this exhausted, it can be difficult to eat enough food, let alone buy and prepare ingredients.

Here are some tips for managing meals when you’re dealing with fatigue:

  • When friends ask how they can help, be ready with a grocery list or meal requests.
  • Arrange for grocery or meal delivery service.
  • Consider using a slow cooker or Instant Pot to cook in a hands-off way.
  • Fill your pantry with grab-and-go, nutrient-packed snacks, such as fruit or crackers with nut butter, to munch on when you’re not feeling up to cooking.
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Chicken pasta bake. Photography by Carly Werner

When you’re feeling energized, consider making big batches of meals that you can freeze and reheat at a later date. Here are some breast cancer-friendly freezable recipes:

  • Lentil stew. Recommended as part of the Mediterranean diet, lentils are a great source of protein and fiber.
  • Chicken pasta bake. This mildly flavored casserole is a wonderful comfort food. Consider skipping the chili flakes if your mouth is sore.
  • Turkey black bean chili. This recipe could not be easier — just put everything into your slow cooker and let it be.

Research into the role of diet and breast cancer outcomes has shed light on some potential eating patterns that may be helpful, although further study is needed.

Protein

A 2016 study, which looked at more than 6,300 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1976 and 2004, found that higher protein intake was linked to slightly higher chances of survival.

It may also be helpful to increase the amount of protein in your diet during cancer treatment, according to the American Cancer Society. The nutrient plays and important role in repairing body tissue and fighting infection.

Sources of protein include:

  • meat, chicken, goat, lamb, turkey, and fish
  • eggs
  • milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • soy products, including soy beverages, tofu, and tempeh
  • beans, peas, and lentils
  • nuts including almonds, pecans, peanuts, and cashews
  • seeds including flax, pumpkin, hemp, and chia
  • peanut butter and other nut butters

Mediterranean diet

A Mediterranean diet may be beneficial for people with breast cancer. The Mediterranean diet is rich in:

  • healthy fats from sources such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, olive oil, and fish
  • a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • learn proteins, such as chicken, turkey, fish
  • beans, peas, and lentils
  • whole grains including barley, rice, wheat, buckwheat, and oats

In 2020, a study looked at the outcomes of nearly 1,500 women in Italy who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1990s. It found that those who closely followed the Mediterranean diet had a 63 percent chance of surviving for 15 years after receiving the diagnosis. Those who didn’t follow that eating pattern closely had a 54 percent chance of a 15-year survival.

Another 2020 study on 309 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer within the previous 12 months found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet had a higher health-related quality of life. This included higher levels of physical functioning, fewer pain symptoms, and improvements in overall well-being.

Best foods for breast cancer

It’s not clear whether eating a specific diet can improve outcomes for everyone with breast cancer. However, a balanced, nutrient-rich diet is usually linked with better results than an eating pattern that includes lots of refined sugars, red meats, and processed meats, per the American Cancer Society.

A balanced diet may include:

  • Grains. This includes rice, pasta, quinoa, teff, bulgar, buckwheat, oats, and wheat.
  • Lean proteins. This includes chicken, fish, soy products, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and eggs.
  • Dairy and non-dairy alternatives. This includes yogurt, cheese, and milk, as well as plant-based alternative milks made from almond, soy, or oats.
  • Fruits. Choose a variety of fruits, including fresh, frozen, dried, or canned types.
  • Vegetables. Eat a rainbow of colors from this group, whether they are fresh, frozen, or canned.

For a diet to work well, it shouldn’t only focus on the essential nutrients — it should also include foods you enjoy. So make sure you incorporate your favorite foods that you eat simply because they taste good and feel nourishing in your body, as well.

It can be tricky to eat when you have breast cancer. Cancer-related fatigue can leave you without enough energy to go grocery shopping or cook. Cancer treatment can also cause a sore mouth and nausea, both of which can make mealtimes a challenge.

Certain recipes, like smoothie bowls, freezable soups, and mild comfort foods, can help make eating a little easier when you’re living with breast cancer.

Keep in mind that there’s no one diet that’s best for people with breast cancer. Consider focusing on a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as other foods you eat simply for enjoyment.

If you need more support, get in touch with a registered dietitian or your cancer care team, or both, for more personalized recommendations.