Eating Well While Receiving Chemotherapy

HCA image for chemo and foodA diagnosis of cancer can be one of the worst things that can happen in your life. But chemotherapy, the very thing that is used to treat cancer, can be frightening too. Chemotherapy brings with it many side effects. One of the most common is difficulty eating. Here are some strategies to help you eat healthy while receiving chemotherapy.

How Chemotherapy Affects Eating

Chemotherapy acts by targeting and killing rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. But, other cells in your body divide quickly as well, including the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. Because of this, chemotherapy can have a profound impact on your ability to eat. Some chemotherapy side effects that affect your eating include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes in taste and smell
  • Mouth tenderness, inflammation, and sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

Eating well, however, is crucial to your recovery. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), getting enough calories and nutrients while receiving chemotherapy can help you to:

  • Improve how you feel
  • Maintain strength, energy, and weight
  • Tolerate side effects from chemotherapy
  • Decrease the risk of infection
  • Recover faster

Tips for Eating

At times, it may seem almost impossible to eat when you are receiving chemotherapy. The following suggestions may help you to get the much-needed nutrients and calories, while minimizing other side effects like nausea and vomiting.

Eat smaller, more frequent meals of easily tolerated foods. Avoid fatty, greasy, and spicy foods. They are be harder on your digestive system. Remember to keep your fluid intake up as well. Drink plenty of fluids throughout the course of the day.

It is important to note that nutrition suggestions for a person receiving chemotherapy can be very different from what is recommended for daily healthy eating. This is a good time to ignore the rules. Eat what you want, when you want, and eat what makes you feel good. Try some foods that you may not have liked in the past. You may find that something that you thought was inedible is now pure heaven.

Dealing With Loss of Appetite

Most chemotherapy medications cause some degree of appetite loss, which can range from mild to severe, which can ultimately lead to malnutrition. Usually, the change in appetite is temporary. Your appetite should return once you have completed chemotherapy. Until this happens, try some of the following tips:

  • Eat high-protein, high-calorie foods.
  • Add extra calories and protein to meals by using ingredients like:
    • Milk powder
    • Protein powder
    • Peanut butter
    • Butter
    • Honey, jam, and sugar
    • Cheese and cream cheese
  • Use liquid supplements that are specially prepared with extra nutrients, which can be found in most health food stores.
  • Drink shakes, smoothies, milk, and soup if chewing and eating solid food is a problem.
  • Eat soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow, such as:
    • Soft fruits—bananas, applesauce, watermelon, peaches, and pears
    • Cottage cheese
    • Mashed potatoes
    • Macaroni and cheese
    • Custards and puddings
    • Scrambled eggs
    • Oatmeal or other cooked cereals
  • Supplement meals with snacks that are rich in protein and calories, like:
    • Nuts
    • Cheese—soft, hard, and cottage
    • Avocado spread on toast or crackers
    • Hard boiled eggs
    • Full-fat yogurt
  • Try to get a lot of calories at breakfast, as this may be the most tolerable meal of the day.
  • Eat in a pleasant environment with other people.

Managing Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are very common side effects of chemotherapy. If you are experiencing either, talk with your doctor. There are several drugs that prevent or alleviate nausea and vomiting. These medications can be used before your symptoms appear.

Some things you can do to help manage nausea and vomiting include:

  • Eat prior to chemotherapy treatment.
  • Eat dry, bland foods like crackers, toast, or breadsticks throughout the day.
  • Sit up or lie down with the upper body raised for one hour after eating.
  • Avoid eating in the room where food was prepared. The odor may be too strong.
  • Avoid eating in a room that is too warm.
  • Rinse out your mouth both before and after eating.
  • Suck on hard candies, like peppermints or lemon drops, if there is a bad taste in your mouth.

In addition, social support is critical to your recovery. Take advantage of the kindness of others. Let your family and friends help you. Ask for assistance with grocery shopping, meal preparation, and clean up. If you have no one to help you, investigate resources in your area, like a community assistance center, support groups, local churches, social service centers, or senior centers.

If you are having problems eating, talk to your oncologist for a referral to a registered dietitian (RD). An RD can help you develop eating plans that may be better tolerated, while providing calories and nutrients.

One Final—But Important—Note

When you undergo cancer treatment, your immune system weakens. Avoiding foodborne illnesses is essential. Take the following steps to prevent this:

  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly, even if you plan on peeling the fruit or vegetable.
  • Wash your hands and food preparation surfaces before and after preparing food, especially after handing raw meat.
  • Thaw meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.
  • Be sure to cook meat and eggs thoroughly.
  • Avoid raw shellfish and sushi.
  • Use only pasteurized or processed ciders and juices and pasteurized milk and cheese.

And remember, your doctors may have some helpful hints of their own. There are also some medications that can stimulate your appetite, reduce nausea, and generally boost your mood.


American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


BC Cancer Agency

Canadian Cancer Society


Chemotherapy and diet. American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Eat Right website. Available at: Published April 16, 2015. Accessed October 3, 2017.

Nutrition for the person with cancer during treatment. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed Accessed October 3, 2017.

Nutrition in cancer care (PDQ). National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated April 19, 2017. Accessed October 3, 2017.

Toxicities of chemotherapeutic agents. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated March 15, 2017. Accessed October 3, 2017.

Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review BoardMichael Woods, MD. FAAP  Last Updated: 11/6/2015