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Eating a balanced diet is especially important when you have breast cancer. Proper nutrition may help your body heal from cancer treatment, which can have numerous side effects such as mouth sores, low appetite, nausea, and vomiting.

A healthy diet may help you:

  • maintain a healthy body weight
  • keep body tissue healthy
  • lessen cancer symptoms and side effects of treatment
  • keep your immune system strong
  • maintain your strength and reduce fatigue
  • improve your quality of life

If you’re having difficulty eating enough, use these tips to get more nutrition into your daily diet.

If you have breast cancer, you’re most likely undergoing chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or are taking HER2-targeted drugs. Your treatment depends on the type and stage of your cancer. You may also need radiation. Among the different side effects, you may have lost your appetite.

Usually, you’ll get these treatments after you’ve already undergone a breast-conserving surgery (BCS), also known as a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy, or a full mastectomy.

Coping with the treatments and the physical changes can be hard. Research shows that about 50 percent of people with breast cancer have depression or anxiety. Because breast cancer can significantly affect both your physical and mental health, it may negatively impact your appetite.

Although it can be difficult, making good food choices can help nourish your brain and body as you keep fighting the disease. We’ve created this guide to help make it easier to eat right.

Breast cancer food guide

There is no specific diet that is recommended for people with breast cancer. Your nutrient needs may vary depending on many factors that include other medical diagnoses, your body weight, nutrient deficiencies, medications, and any symptoms that you’re currently experiencing.

Your healthcare team, including a registered dietitian who specializes in oncology nutrition, can help you come up with an appropriate eating plan specific to your needs and overall health. The following foods are based on general recommendations to maintain overall health while living with breast cancer:

  • whole, nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, protein sources like chicken and turkey, fatty fish like trout or salmon, and plant-based proteins sources like lentils and nuts
  • foods high in healthy fats and protein. If you need to maintain or gain weight, incorporate sources of healthy fat like nuts and seeds, avocados, and olive oil as well as protein sources like eggs, chicken, lentils, and fish. Protein-rich foods are especially important for maintaining muscle mass.
  • blended liquids such as milkshakes, smoothies, juices, or soups for those times when you don‘t feel like eating solid foods
  • high fiber foods like whole grains, flax seeds, legumes, vegetables and fruits to treat constipation

Phytochemicals

Eating foods that contain certain compounds known as phytochemicals may help your body fight cancer. These chemicals are present primarily in plant-based foods.

But, a note of caution: Some studies do show these compounds may help reduce cancer risk or recurrence, but more research is needed to determine the precise effect of these compounds on existing cancers compared to cancer risk.

Follow this chart for guidance on the types of vegetables and fruits to eat, and which chemicals they contain:

TypeWhat it doesWhat foods it’s in
carotenoids or beta carotenemay help prevent the growth of malignant tumors; may also minimize the negative effects of chemotherapy drugs without reducing the treatment’s impact on cancer cellsmost fruits and vegetables
isothiocyanatesmay play some role in helping stop the growth of breast cancer cells cruciferous vegetables like
broccoli or cabbage
polyphenolsmay also help prevent tumor cell growth and metastasis. Includes five classes: flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, stilbenes, and other polyphenols. Of these five, flavonoids and phenolic acids are the most common classes, accounting for about 60 and 30 percent respectively.
depending on the type, they occur in different foods such as fruits, berries, grains, and more

More broadly, research shows that when people living with breast cancer eat more fruits and vegetables (especially green leafy or cruciferous vegetables), their risk of survival may be higher.

Eating blueberries, for example, shows a stronger association with lower breast cancer mortality, as well as mortality from other causes. On the other hand, drinking a lot of fruit juice (except for orange juice) shows an association with poorer survival rates from breast cancer and other causes.

Researchers think that in addition to the phytochemicals in produce, the glycemic index of vegetables and fruit may also be a factor in breast cancer survival, but more research is needed.

Other research also shows that drinking approximately five cups of green tea a day or more may reduce the risk of breast cancer recurring by 19 percent.

When you’re feeling ill from side effects related to treatment, you may only be able to tolerate specific foods. When you’re feeling well, it’s best to follow a nutrient-dense diet full of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, protein sources like chicken and fish, high fiber foods like beans, and healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, and nuts.

In certain situations determined by your doctor, you may need to avoid or reduce your consumption of specific foods and beverages, including:

  • Alcohol. Beer, wine, and liquor could interact with the cancer drugs you take. There is also some limited evidence that drinking alcohol may increase the risk of recurrence and mortality for existing breast cancer.
  • Spicy, cruncy, or acidic foods. These may increase mouth soreness, which is a common chemotherapy side effect.
  • Undercooked foods. If you have breast cancer, you’re at a higher risk of developing infections. Avoid raw foods like sushi and oysters during your treatment. Cook meats, fish, and poultry to a safe temperature before eating them. For similar reasons, avoid raw nuts, expired or moldy foods, or foods that have been out of the refrigerator for more than 3 days.

If you’ve been reading about breast cancer online, you might find claims that one diet or another can cure you. Be wary of these exaggerated claims.

Generally speaking, research shows that eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, and low-fat dairy products may have a positive impact on cancer survival. In contrast, eating processed foods, high-sugar foods, or fried foods may have a negative impact.

So any diet, such as the Mediterranean diet for example, that encourages this kind of eating may help support your cancer recovery.

If you want to try the following diets, take these precautions into consideration:

The Keto diet

The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate eating plan that has recently gained popularity. You dramatically cut carbohydrates to put your body into a state of ketosis, where it’s forced to burn stored fat for energy.

Though a few studies have shown the ketogenic diet to be promising for certain types of cancer, it hasn’t been proven to treat breast cancer. It can also alter the chemical balance in your body, which could be risky.

Plant-based diet

A plant-based diet means that you mainly eat foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. This is similar to a vegetarian or vegan diet, but many people who follow plant-based diets still eat animal products. However, they limit their intake.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends following a plant-based diet for cancer prevention. Their research shows that cancer survivors may benefit from this diet as well. The diet allows you to get fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals from plant foods, while also getting protein and nutrients from animal products.

Ultimately, any diet you try should contain a healthy balance of nutrients, protein, calories, and healthy fats. Going extreme in any direction could be dangerous. Before you try any new diet, check with your dietitian and doctor to make sure it’s safe for you.

Mediterranean diet

If you follow the Mediterranean diet, it means that you’re eating a large variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as grains, nuts, and seeds. This diet also includes olive oil, beans, dairy, and proteins like chicken, eggs, and fish in fewer amounts.

The food you eat with this diet tends to be unprocessed. You drink minimal alcohol, usually wine, and typically with meals. The diet minimizes sugar, salt, and saturated fat, and doesn’t include a lot of processed meats.

Multiple studies show that adhering to the Mediterranean diet may reduce your breast cancer risk and may have a positive effect on breast cancer mortality. In addition, research also suggests that the diet may help improve sleep quality, reduce pain, and boost your overall well-being. But, it may not be possible to completely rule out other factors that may contribute to these outcomes.

Breast cancer symptoms and treatment side effects may leave you feeling too unwell to cook, plan meals, or eat as you normally do. Here are some tips to help make eating healthy easier.

  • Shrink the size of your meals. Nausea, bloating, and constipation can make it hard to eat three large meals a day. To get the calories you need, graze on smaller portions five or six times daily. Add snacks like hard boiled eggs, yogurt with berries, and peanut butter on crackers or apples.
  • Meet with a registered dietitian. A dietitian can help you design a healthy meal plan that suits your food preferences and nutritional needs. They can also teach you ways to manage cancer treatment side effects like nausea so you can eat a more well-balanced diet. If you can, work with a dietitian who has experience in treating people with breast cancer. Ask your oncologist or nurse to recommend someone.
  • Use different utensils. Sometimes chemotherapy can leave a bad taste in your mouth that gives food an unpleasant flavor. Certain foods — like meat — can take on a metallic taste. To improve the taste of your food, avoid metal utensils and cooking implements. Use plastic cutlery instead, and cook with glass pots and pans.
  • Add more fluids. If your mouth hurts too much to eat solid foods, get your nutrition from liquids like smoothies or nutritional beverages. In addition, treatment side effects like vomiting and diarrhea can dehydrate you. Drink at least 8-12 glasses of water a day. While you’re getting treatment, some of that liquid may be fruit juice, milk, and low-sodium broth. Limit caffeine and try to eat foods high in moisture such as fruits.

There are many recipes that utilize healthy ingredients. Cooking your own food will help you know exactly what goes in your meals, and will help you avoid what might cause you harm.

It can be helpful to plan and prepare meals ahead of time. That way, you’re more likely to stick to a healthy eating plan. Create a meal plan for the entire week, and cook an entire week’s meals over the weekend when you have more time. If you’re too tired to cook or you can’t stand the smell of it, ask a friend or relative to prepare meals for you.

A dietitian or your doctor can recommend some recipes. In addition, some helpful resources for recipes include:

  • The National Cancer Institute’s pamphlet includes recipes for snacks, liquid foods like milkshakes, low or high fiber foods, as well as tips on how to add protein and calories when eating is difficult.
  • The American Cancer Society offers a database of recipes divided into side dishes and appetizers, main dishes, and desserts.
  • The American Institute for Cancer Research includes a variety of recipes divided by appetizers, entrees, beverages, salads, sides, vegetarian dishes, and whole grains.

In addition, you can consider purchasing The Breast Cancer Cookbook: Over 100 Easy Recipes to Nourish and Boost Health During and After Treatment, a cookbook specifically designed for breast cancer nutrition.

Eating a nutritious diet when you have breast cancer has many health benefits. Not only can it make you feel better faster, but it can boost your immune system and keep you strong. If you’re considering trying a new diet or are having trouble sticking to a healthy eating plan, talk to your doctor or a dietitian.

It might also be helpful to reach out to others for support. Our free app, Breast Cancer Healthline, connects you with thousands of other women living with breast cancer, where you can ask diet-related questions and seek advice from women who get it. Download the app for iPhone or Android.