Let's Eat Healthy: Proper Nutrition During Cancer Treatment

August 5, 2020
Healthy Living

Why does nutrition matter for people fighting cancer? 

The internet has overwhelming amounts of information about cancer nutrition and diets. This can often raise more questions than it answers, like:  Not to mention that not everyone posting on the internet has the experience necessary to give advice on this topic. 


To clear things up, one of the lead nutritionists at Meals to Heal has written a helpful introduction on how the right nutrition can help cancer patients stay strong during cancer treatment.

The Benefits of Proper Nutrition During Cancer Treatment

Jessica Iannotta MS, RD, CSO, CDN

When many things seem out of control after a cancer diagnosis, you can take control by choosing to focus on optimal nutrition.  Deciding to eat more healthfully will empower you and your loved ones to enhance your strength during treatment and improve your quality of life.

'A healthy diet consists primarily of plant-based food along with lean sources of protein. The proper balance of proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats helps prevent swings in blood sugar, hormones and energy levels. It can also help you to feel less fatigued, with a more positive mood. A well-balanced diet can give you the nutrients needed to fight off infections and the fuel to repair damage done to healthy cells during treatment. Healthy eating also can reduce the amount and severity of treatment side effects.

Here are some helpful suggestions:

Eat frequent but small meals and snacks spread throughout the day.Seek counseling from a registered dietitian (RD) who is a certified specialist in oncology nutrition. Dietitians can recommend foods, beverages, meal plans and supplements to improve your nutrition before, during and after cancer treatment. They can tailor this information to your individual needs, treatments and side effects.Get information from sources that rely on sound, scientific evidence.Avoid “miracle cures” and unknown dietary supplements, most of which do not have evidence to support their use or benefit during or after cancer treatment. If something sounds too good to be true, chances are it is.

Foods made with fresh fruits, like avocados, are important parts of proper nutrition. Click here to find some healthy and easy avocado recipes
‍‍Foods made with fresh fruits, like avocados, are important parts of proper nutrition. Click here to find some healthy and easy avocado recipes

Cancer treatment can cause a variety of nutrition-related side effects. Many of these can be managed with changes in diet, appropriate food selection, and preparation.  Below are some suggestions to help manage some of the common side effects and symptoms experienced during cancer treatment.

Managing Side Effects with Nutrition:

Loss of appetite: You may eat less than usual, not feel hungry at all, or feel full after eating only a small amount. Although you may not feel like eating, getting adequate nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight are important. Take advantage of the times when your appetite is best and try to consume small frequent meals and snacks throughout the day. Eat in enjoyable surroundings and make meals look less overwhelming by placing them on smaller plates rather than larger plates.

Nausea/vomiting: Some types of chemotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting. Nausea is sometimes described as an unsettling or queasy feeling in the stomach and can be experienced with or without vomiting. Because an empty stomach may make nausea and vomiting worse, be sure to eat regular meals and snacks. Eat small frequent meals (5-6 times a day) instead of three large meals, and avoid greasy or spicy foods and food with strong odors. Eat dry foods such as crackers, toast and pretzels that may be easier on your stomach. Try ginger teas, ginger candies, ginger snaps/cookies or ginger root in soups and stir fries.

Fatigue: This common side effect is usually described as feeling very weak, tired or having a lack of energy. Choose foods high in protein and calories, which provide lots of energy. Make sure to stay as hydrated as possible and try to incorporate some exercise into your day.  Try nutritional supplements or liquid-meal replacements if recommended by your physician and health-care team.

Constipation: Constipation can be caused by certain chemotherapies, nausea and pain medications, a change in diet or a decrease in your usual activity level. Be sure to stay hydrated by drinking at least 8-10 8-ounce glasses of fluid each day. Eat foods rich in fiber, such as bran; whole-grain breads, cereal and pastas; fresh fruits and vegetables; and beans and nuts.

Diarrhea: Diarrhea occurs when you are having frequent, loose, soft or watery bowel movements, and can quickly lead to dehydration. Avoid greasy or fatty food, food high in fiber, raw vegetables and caffeine. Drink a minimum of 8-10 8-ounce glasses of clear fluid a day, such as water, broth, juices, Gatorade or decaffeinated tea. Consume foods rich in potassium, such as fruit juices and nectars, bananas and potatoes (without skin). Also eat foods high in pectin and soluble fiber, such as applesauce, baked apples, bananas, rice and oatmeal to help slow down diarrhea.

Changes in your taste: During treatment the foods you usually like may become unappealing. Foods may taste bland, bitter or metallic. Try rinsing with 1-2 ounces of baking-soda rinse before and after meals. (Recipe for baking soda rinse: 1 quart water, ¾ teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon baking soda). If red meats taste strange, try substituting other proteins such as chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, dairy, beans or tofu. Eat foods that smell and look good to you. Avoid using metal utensils; use plastic ones instead. Avoid hot foods to reduce strong odors; serve food at room temperature.

Mouth soreness: Many patients treated with high-dose chemotherapy drugs can develop mucositis and mouth soreness. Avoid acidic and spicy foods along with rough and coarse foods that can irritate the oral cavity. It is helpful to eat nutrient-dense, soft foods such as creamed soups, broth, pudding, scrambled eggs, yogurt, mashed potatoes, cottage cheese, shakes, smoothies and nutritional drinks. Sometimes a straw can divert liquids away from painful areas. Some people may require prescription-numbing rinses before mealtime to reduce pain.

Maintaining adequate fluid intake: Many people are required to drink at least 10 8-ounce glasses of fluid daily and urinate frequently during the first 24 hours after treatment to help flush the chemotherapy out of the kidneys. Some people at high risk for dehydration may actually be sent home with intravenous hydration. Additional sources of fluids include water, decaffeinated tea, juice, broth, fruit ices, ice pops and gelatin.

Heartburn/reflux: Heartburn can be a side effect of chemotherapy. Avoid acidic foods, like tomatoes and citrus, as well as high-fat and spicy foods. Small frequent meals can minimize acid regurgitation and discomfort. Some people need over-the-counter or prescription heartburn medications recommended by their health-care team.

Reference:Oncology Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  Lesser M, Ledesma N, Bergerson S, Truillo E. Oncology Nutrition for Clinical Practice.  Oncology Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: 2013.

Jessica A. Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN, Chief Operating Officer.  Jessica is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). She studied nutrition at Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at NewYork Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. She obtained her Master’s degree through the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Jessica has worked in inpatient and outpatient oncology settings since 2001 in the North Shore-LIJ Health System.  Jessica is in charge of all operations including clinical and culinary operations ranging from menu development to evidence-based website content, relationships with registered dieticians and social workers and developing processes and protocols for intake, management and outcomes.


We are proud to recommend Meals to Heal, which provides evidence-based information, access to credentialed oncology nutrition professionals, and affordable delivery of fresh, healthy, and well-balanced meals for cancer patients and caregivers. In addition to Meals to Heal, Wellist lists 40 other meal delivery services designed to make healthy eating easier. Set up a free Wellist account to explore your options and get personalized recommendations by clicking below: 


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