Foods to Eat When You Have Diarrhea From Chemotherapy

Diarrhea is an extremely common side effect of chemotherapy. Digestive problems like diarrhea occur because of how chemotherapy drugs are designed to work. Cancer cells divide quickly — faster than most of the cells in our body. Chemotherapy drugs work by targeting these rapidly dividing cells. But some normal cells in our bodies also rapidly divide, including our hair follicle cells and the cells in the lining of our stomach and digestive tract. Chemotherapy drugs simply cannot tell the difference between these normal, rapidly dividing cells and cancer cells, so the drugs attack these cells as well. This is why we experience hair loss and digestive problems when undergoing chemotherapy.

Rice grains, cereal. White rice, ingredient close up. Raw food close up
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First, you should know that reporting any side effects to your doctor is essential during treatment — even those that you may find to be unrelated to treatment. Diarrhea can become serious, especially because it can quickly lead to dehydration. When you have runny bowel movements, you are losing a lot of fluids with each episode. The good news is that your doctor can likely prescribe a medication to help prevent and treat diarrhea.

Eating Well During Chemotherapy

Appetite loss is very common and can occur anytime during treatment, so take advantage of your appetite while you have it! Remember to eat well-balanced meals that consist of lean protein, colorful fruits and vegetables, and lots of caffeine-free liquids.

Eating well is essential during treatment, especially when you suffer from diarrhea. There are foods that you can eat to help relieve it. The key is to consume foods that are low-fiber or have pectin, a soluble fiber. Potassium-rich foods are also good.

Food Dos and Don'ts When You Have Diarrhea
What to Eat What to Avoid
White rice
Creamed cereals
Cottage cheese and yogurt 
Applesauce, pear or apricot nectar
Canned fruits without peels
White bread
Skinless white meat chicken, meat, or fish
  • Greasy, fatty foods
  • Sugary foods, including jellies, candy, jams, and fruit juices
  • Butter, milk, cheese, ice cream
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Beans, nuts, and seeds
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Alcohol 
  • Coffee and tea
  • Artificial sweeteners 

Staying Hydrated Is Key When Experiencing Diarrhea

As mentioned above, when you have diarrhea, you lose vital fluids with each bowel movement. Replacing those lost fluids is essential and should be done by drinking clear fluids in addition to your recommended daily intake of water. Gatorade, Powerade, and even Pedialyte are excellent rehydration fluids because they contain glucose and sodium that will help regain adequate electrolyte levels. By drinking additional plain water to replace lost fluids, you may decrease sodium and calcium levels in the body, which can be dangerous.

Just remember that your digestive system is very sensitive right now and will continue to be during treatment. Even if your appetite hasn't changed, you have to be careful of the foods you consume because they may upset your stomach, even if they didn't prior to treatment.

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  1. National Cancer Institute. Gastrointestinal complications (PDQ)—patient version. Updated March 7, 2018.

  2. American Cancer Society. Diarrhea. Updated July 29, 2019.