7 Diet Tips During Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs can really mess up your diet. There's poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, sore mouth and an increased chance of getting an infection. So how should you plan your diet during chemotherapy? Here are some tips on eating while on treatment.


Outsmart Your Poor Appetite

fried egg
Silvia Elena Castaneda Punchetta/EyeEm/Getty Images

Chemotherapy kills your appetite as surely as it kills cancer cells. The very thought of food may make your stomach turn. Try some of the following to make eating a more tolerable experience:

  • Get a little bit of exercise before your meals if you can. Take a walk around the block to try to stimulate your appetite. 
  • Variety can help — switch things up by trying new foods and recipes or eating in a different location.
  • A bit of distraction helps too — eat with friends or watch a show on TV when eating alone.

Get Your Nausea Under Control

There's no need to suffer in silence.  There are several effective anti-nausea drugs that can be used during chemotherapy. If you feel that your nausea is not well controlled, speak to your healthcare provider about it. You may need a combination of agents, but you can get the better of it.


Eat Less Food, More Often

Nausea and poor appetite may prevent you from eating in large quantities. Have small meals, more frequently. If three larger meals seem hard to handle, have six smaller meals or snacks instead. Keep food within easy reach, so you don't have to work harder to take a bite.


Don't Skimp on Calories

Treatment takes a toll on your body. Even if you're not very active during treatment, you need plenty of calories to keep you going. This is not the time to choose "light" foods. Choose eggs, meat, milk, butter, and cheese to keep up your supply of calories. Don’t shy away from fat. If you don’t feel like eating, drink high-calorie liquids, such as milkshakes or prepared nutritional shakes. 


Pump Up the Protein

Apart from burning calories, chemotherapy and other treatments that kill cells result in a lot of protein turnover in your body. You need to take in more proteins during chemotherapy than in your usual diet. Eating only fruits and vegetables will not get you all the proteins that you require. Eggs and meat are excellent sources of protein, as are nuts, beans, and legumes. Milk and cheese are other good sources. Ask your healthcare provider about protein supplements that you can get from a store.


Make Sure That Food Is Well Cooked and Heated

Chemotherapy suppresses your body’s defenses against infection, so be extra vigilant about food safety. Make sure that you don’t eat anything that is not thoroughly cooked. A well-cooked meal is also a well-sterilized meal. Cooking kills bacteria, and hot food is safe from most germs that cause bowel infections. Raw food can also be more difficult to digest and may worsen your appetite. Avoid take-away food — it may not be freshly cooked.


Ensure Cleanliness to Prevent Infections

The world is swarming with bacteria. Under normal circumstances, your body can tackle almost any germ. But when your defenses are down, you are at a high risk of infection. Make sure that you follow some simple precautions:

  • Wash your hands before cooking and eating.
  • Make sure that your utensils and knives are cleaned before cooking.
  • Keep raw food away from cooked food.
  • Refrigerate food whenever possible; don’t keep it lying out in the open.
2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Coa KI, Epstein JB, Ettinger D, et al. The impact of cancer treatment on the diets and food preferences of patients receiving outpatient treatmentNutr Cancer. 2015;67(2):339–353. doi:10.1080/01635581.2015.990577

  2. W Demark-Wahnefried, V Hars, M R Conaway, K Havlin, B K Rimer, G McElveen, E P Winer, Reduced rates of metabolism and decreased physical activity in breast cancer patients receiving adjuvant chemotherapyThe American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 65, Issue 5, May 1997, Pages 1495–1501. doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/65.5.1495

By Indranil Mallick, MD
 Indranil Mallick, MD, DNB, is a radiation oncologist with a special interest in lymphoma.