Healthy eating tips for cancer patients

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation do a great job of killing cancer cells, but what happens when they also kill your appetite?

For treatment to be as effective as possible, patients should try their best to maintain their weight, but this is hard to do when many side effects of treatment negatively impact patients’ ability and desire to eat.

Luckily, there are several strategies patients can employ to continue eating well during treatment.

Here are City of Hope dietitian Elaine Siu’s nutrition tips for the 7 most common treatment side effects patients experience.

1. Loss of appetite

In most cases, it is crucial that cancer patients eat as much as possible to maintain their body weight during treatment, even if their appetite has changed. When experiencing this side effect, Siu says patients should:

  • Eat small meals frequently.

  • Keep snacks handy for whenever hunger strikes.

  • Limit beverages before and during meals so you fill up on the foods you’re eating and not liquids you’re drinking.

  • When you do drink liquids, choose options that contain a good amount of calories and other nutrients. Protein shakes are a good option in this instance.

  • Choose high-calorie, high-protein foods.

  • Enjoy larger meals whenever you feel up to it.

2. Changes in taste

Chemotherapy affects your taste buds, resulting in some patients finding that red meat has a bitter or metallic taste. Others may lose taste altogether.

If you’re noticing an unpleasant flavor when you consume red meat:

  • Eat white meats like chicken and turkey.

  • Incorporate other proteins like eggs, tofu and beans.

If you‘re experiencing a loss of taste:

  • Marinate foods before cooking them.

  • Season foods with tart fruits like lemon and lime, along with herbs and spices.

  • Try sweet foods to counteract bitter, salty or acidic tastes.

3. Sensitivity to smell

During treatment, the very smell of certain foods can make patients sick to their stomachs. If you’re plagued by sensitivity to smell:
  • Eat foods cold or at room temperature to make smells more tolerable.

  • Keep windows open and use fans, if possible, to keep air circulating throughout eating areas.

4. Nausea

One of the most challenging side effects cancer patients face is nausea. It’s important to keep weight on while in treatment, but that is challenging when the thought of eating is making you nauseated.

Your doctor can prescribe nausea medications to treat this side effect, but there are also modifications you can make to your diet:
  • When experiencing this symptom, start with juice, broth, ginger ale or other clear liquids.

  • When you feel up to eating, choose plain foods like bread, crackers and fruit.

  • Stick to four to six small meals a day, and avoid skipping meals whenever possible.

5. Dry mouth

Many patients struggle with dry mouth, making eating and drinking uncomfortable. To combat dry mouth:

  • Sip on water regularly throughout the day.

  • Snack on sugar-free hard candy, tart foods, and popsicles or ice chips.

  • Add gravy or other sauces to food.

  • Avoid all alcohol — even alcohol-based mouthwashes.

6. Mouth sores

When faced with painful mouth sores:

  • Turn to liquid supplements and shakes as meal replacements.

  • Eat soft, chopped foods like soups, mashed potatoes, egg salad, scrambled eggs and oatmeal.

  • Choose cold foods.

7. Weight loss

Limiting calorie intake during cancer treatment is not recommended, even if you are overweight. To keep the pounds on:

  • Eat four to six meals a day

  • Select high-calorie, high-protein foods.

  • Eat regularly. You don’t have to wait until you feel hungry.

  • To increase your protein consumption, add tofu, peanut butter, ice cream and yogurt to smoothies.

  • To include more fats in your diet, cook with healthy oils like olive oil as often as possible and snack on avocados, nuts and peanut butter.

  • Eat more dairy products like whole milk, ice cream and dry milk powder.

  • Incorporate liquid supplements to add calories and nutrients to your diet. There are many options on the market in a host of flavors.