Diet for Chemo Patients

Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.
girl getting chemotherapy

If you're undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment, you may notice a few unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, loss of appetite, sore mouth, and changes in taste and smell, which can make eating right a challenge. However, during chemotherapy treatment, it's crucial to get the nutrients your body needs to maximize cancer treatment and recovery.

General Guidelines

Following a few simple eating tips is helpful for chemotherapy patients, especially those who experience side effects. The National Cancer Institute and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest:

  • Eat five or six small meals frequently throughout the day instead of a few large meals.
  • Get plenty of protein-rich foods to help your body heal.
  • Drink liquids frequently throughout the day; aim for 8 to 12 cups daily.
  • Choose high-fiber foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds) if you're experiencing constipation.
  • Pick soft, easy-to-chew foods if you have a sore mouth.
  • Choose bland foods or follow a BRAT diet if you're nauseated or have diarrhea.
  • Spice foods up a bit if you're experiencing sensory changes causing food to taste bland.
  • Try liquid meal replacements or protein shakes if you're struggling with loss of appetite or unintentional weight loss to boost calories and protein.

Protein Foods

Patients undergoing chemotherapy likely have protein needs higher than recommended dietary allowances (RDAs), but more research is needed to determine specific protein requirements for these patients, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cancer Treatment Centers of America suggests adults, including those with cancer, get at least 45 to 60 grams of protein daily. Good sources of protein foods for chemo patients include:

  • Chicken, fish, and meat (as tolerated)
  • Eggs
  • Soy foods
  • Dairy foods
  • Legumes
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butters
  • Protein shakes or liquid meal replacements

Healthy Fats

When going through chemotherapy, choose a variety of healthy fats to meet your body's nutrient needs. Fats are higher in calories than protein or carbs, which is beneficial when your appetite is low, or you're losing weight unintentionally. Examples of healthy fats include:

  • Plant oils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Nut butters
  • Avocados
  • Fatty fish and fish oils

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates help give you energy when you're going through cancer treatment, though you may still feel tired from chemotherapy. The carb-containing foods you should eat really depend on taste preference and whether you're experiencing side effects like sore mouth, nausea, or constipation. The following healthy carbs are rich in nutrients and beneficial for chemo patients (as tolerated):

  • Whole grains (brown rice, whole-grain bread, quinoa, whole-grain pasta, oatmeal, etc.)
  • Fruits and vegetables (the American Cancer Society recommends getting at least 2.5 cups of fruits and veggies in daily)
  • Low-fat milk and yogurt
  • Legumes (black beans, lentils, chick peas, navy beans, etc.)
  • Nuts and seeds

Vitamin Supplements

Taking a multivitamin supplement is, in theory, a good idea when undergoing chemotherapy, especially if you're not getting enough essential vitamins and minerals from foods due to poor appetite. However, the American Cancer Society says taking dietary supplements, especially those containing high doses of antioxidants like vitamins E and C, could be harmful during chemotherapy or radiation therapy. So always ask your doctor before taking vitamin supplements during cancer treatment.

Sample Menus

You may have to alter chemotherapy diets based on symptoms you're having and which foods you're able to tolerate. Sample menus are as follows:

Day 1

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal, blueberries, and Greek yogurt
  • Snack: Whole-grain crackers with hummus
  • Lunch: Turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich on whole grain bread, an apple, and a leafy green salad with Italian dressing
  • Snack: Protein smoothie
  • Dinner: Grilled salmon, steamed asparagus, brown rice, and frozen yogurt
  • Snack: Popcorn

Day 2

  • Breakfast: Whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk topped with strawberries, walnuts, and sliced almonds
  • Snack: Banana and hard-boiled egg
  • Lunch: Crab, grapefruit, avocado salad with breadstick
  • Snack: Berries or minted melon balls
  • Dinner: Grilled chicken breast with broccoli penne
  • Snack: Energizing smoothie

Day 3

  • Breakfast: Egg, black bean, and feta cheese breakfast burrito on whole-grain tortilla, and an orange
  • Snack: Greek yogurt
  • Lunch: Chicken and white bean soup with saltine crackers
  • Snack: Almond milk smoothie
  • Dinner: Turkey or veggie burger with cheddar cheese and sliced tomatoes on whole-grain bun, and black bean and corn salad
  • Snack: Cherries with pumpkin seeds

Coping with Chemo

While chemotherapy can be hard work and take a toll on your body, getting the right nutrition helps maximize your recovery and boosts energy levels as much as possible. You may have to change things depending on side effects you're experiencing, but aim to get a good variety of protein, carbs, and healthy fats every day.

Diet for Chemo Patients