How to Eat Enough While on Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy alters the smell and taste of some foods, making the idea of eating very unappealing. You may have trouble swallowing, especially if you have cancers of the head and neck. Chemotherapy side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation also make it tough to eat. Fifteen to 25 percent of cancer patients experience anorexia (loss of appetite) and virtually all patients with metastatic cancer become anorexic.

Furthermore, cancer compromises your body's ability to absorb nutrients from the food you do eat, leading to weight loss and malnutrition. In fact, the National Cancer Institute says protein and calorie malnutrition is the most common secondary diagnosis in people with cancer.

Eating properly during chemotherapy ensures you maintain a healthy weight. It protects lean body mass, builds your body's nutritional stores, and counters the damage chemotherapy inflicts on your body. Good nutrition also helps offset unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy, improving your quality of life during treatment.

Here are some guidelines for eating during chemotherapy.

  • Eat frequent, small snacks so you consume enough calories and nutrients.
  • Incorporate high-calorie and high-protein foods, such as cheese and crackers, muffins, pudding, shakes, yogurt, ice cream, and chocolate.
  • Take vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • Drink eight to 12 cups of fluids daily to stay well hydrated. Drink even when you're not thirsty, and try to drink after or between meals.
  • Limit your consumption of caffeine.
  • Eat liquid foods that contain energy, such as juices, milk , soups, shakes, and fruit smoothies.
  • Avoid foods that are hot and spicy, fatty, greasy, fried, or sugary.
  • Adding butter, creams, or powdered milk to foods increases your intake of calories and protein.
  • If you have a dry mouth, drink plenty of fluids, eat moist foods and frozen desserts, and suck on hard candies.
  • When your stomach is unsettled, chose soft foods that don't require a lot of digestion, and avoid irritating foods such as citrus, or foods that are spicy, salty, rough, coarse, or dry. Cook food until it's tender.
  • When chemotherapy causes diarrhea, incorporate high fiber foods such as legumes, whole grains, and vegetables.
  • Choose poultry, fish, eggs, and cheese as protein sources in lieu of red meat.

As difficult as chemotherapy is, most of the side effects will subside when you complete your treatment and you can look forward to eating normally again.

Sources: "Foods to avoid on chemotherapy?" Web. 15 August 2008.

National Cancer Institute. "Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®)." Web. 6 November 2008.

National Cancer Institute. "Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ)." Web. 30 November 2010.

Bernhardson, Britt-Marie, RN, Tishelman, Carol, PhD, RN, and Rutqvist, Lars Erick, MD, PhD. "Taste and Smell Changes in Patients Receiving Cancer Chemotherapy: Distress, Impact on Daily Life, and Self-care Strategies." Cancer Nursing 32(1) (2009): 45-54. Medscape Medical News. Web. 27 May 2009.