If you are undergoing any type of chemo treatment, you are a real-world superhero! But every hero needs help now and then, and one of the best ways to support yourself through your battle is with a nutrient-dense chemo diet.
When you begin chemotherapy, many of your daily routines will change. One of the anticipated changes will be in your eating and dietary habits.
Some of the most common side effects of chemotherapy are a decreased appetite and nausea. This can interfere with the way you usually eat, so you may need to plan ahead and choose your foods intentionally to ensure you’re getting all of the proper nutrients.
In this article, we want to give you our best tips and tricks for creating a cancer-fighting diet, as well as helpful resources you can turn to during your healing process.
Creating your chemo diet and nutrition plan
Your highest priority when starting a chemo diet is to get enough nutrients and calorie-dense foods. Your body needs adequate fuel to get you through treatment and keep your energy levels up.
Since many patients experience nausea and a low appetite during treatment, we suggest having nutrient-dense snacks available so that you have foods you like close by when you feel like eating.
How to increase calorie intake during chemo
When even the foods you love seem unappetizing, how can you get enough calories?
Here are a few tips for getting enough food even when you are experiencing side effects of chemo:
- Keep calorie-dense snacks on hand at all times.
- Drink your calories: Try a high-quality protein supplement.
- Eat 5-6 small meals each day versus larger meals.
- If prescribed, use anti-nausea meds before you plan to eat.
- Make some simple, tasty soups and store them in the fridge.
- Freeze fruit and bananas to blend into smoothies.
- Eat what you can tolerate. ANY calories are better than no calories during chemo.
- Try using some (doctor-approved) daily supplements to make up for the nutrients you can’t receive through your diet alone.
When your appetite is increased, focus on consuming lots of healing foods and supplements. And don’t be afraid to indulge in some goodies!
You and your body are working overtime during chemotherapy, and a little treat every once in a while is a great way to reward yourself.
But what specific foods are best to eat on a chemo diet? Let’s discuss the best cancer-fighting diet available.
The chemo diet: foods to improve your healing and stamina
If you want to create the most efficient chemo diet, here are some nutrients you should try to include at each meal:
Protein will play many important roles in your healing journey. Your body needs a variety of proteins for rebuilding cells and tissues that may be damaged due to the cancer or intensity of treatment.
Protein is important for growth, keeping your immune system strong, and even energy production.
During chemotherapy, it’s important to choose a protein that your body can easily absorb, like hydrolyzed collagen protein. This is because your body’s normal functions have been compromised, and difficult-to-digest foods may just tax your body more.
With a fast-absorbing protein, you’ll reserve your energy levels, fill your body with nutrients, and be ready to facilitate healing.
If you aren’t sure how to get enough protein, some good sources of protein to include in your chemo diet include:
- Fish (cooked)
- Peanut butter
- Dairy (pasteurized)
- Eggs (cooked)
- Liquid protein supplement
Dehydration and low fiber intake are common during chemotherapy. Combine this with being less active due to feeling unwell, and you’re likely to experience some constipation.
Increasing your fiber intake will help improve your digestion, ease constipation, support healthy cholesterol levels, and keep your digestive system in good shape.
In your chemo diet, try to include one of the following in each of your meals to increase fiber intake:
- Vegetables (steamed, raw, baked)
- Fruit (dried or fresh)
- Bran cereal
- Whole grain bread or crackers
- Leafy greens
It is important to include some high-quality fats in your chemo diet. Your body is working hard to fight off the cancer, and healthy fats will help to prevent malnourishment and excessive weight loss.
The daily recommendation for fat intake is about 20-30% of your calories. Protein-dense foods like meats and dairy already contain some fat. If you are eating lean meats or not much fat in your meal, consider adding a small amount of the following:
- Fish (cooked)
- Olive oil (unheated)
- Nut butter
- Nuts and seeds
- Eggs (cooked)
Plant-based vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals
Strive to include fruits, vegetables, or leafy greens at every meal in your chemo diet. These are full of potent micronutrients that will support every system in your body.
When your appetite is low, stick to whatever sits well in your stomach. Cooking vegetables until they are soft or putting them in soup may make it easier to keep them down.
When your appetite is up, include a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Raw fruit makes a great energy-dense snack.
Immune-boosting foods and supplements
Your immune system is going to take a hit during cancer treatment. Many of the medications they give you to fight the cancer will also take a toll on your healthy cells that fight off infection.
There are some cancer-fighting foods you can include in your chemo diet that will support your immune system, help to reduce inflammation, and provide powerful nutrients to your cells and organs.
Although these foods don’t directly fight off cancer, they support and power your body through the cancer journey. By incorporating these foods and nutrients into your chemo diet, you can support your body in staying well.
- Vitamin A (orange fruits and veggies)
- Zinc (lean meats, seeds, nuts)
- Vitamin C
It is also important that you follow all of the guidelines from your healthcare provider geared towards keeping you healthy. Some of these guidelines may include:
- Staying away from large crowds
- Not allowing sick visitors into your home
- Wearing a mask when you’re out in public
- Washing your hands frequently
- Not eating at restaurants
- Avoiding uncooked foods
In addition to following the above advice, there are specific foods and tricks you can try to combat common side effects of chemo. Let’s take a look at some of them now.
Tips to combat chemo side effects
Chemotherapy will affect every person differently. Depending on what type of chemo you’re receiving, the type of cancer you have, and your health and stamina levels before treatment, you may or may not experience some of the following side effects:
Mouth and throat sores
Some people develop sores in their mouth and throat after receiving chemotherapy. This can make it difficult to swallow and chew. If you get mouth sores, or if your throat is simply in pain, it is still important to eat.
Here are some tips for soothing mouth and cold throat sores during your chemo diet:
- Use a straw to drink shakes, smoothies, and pureed soups
- Avoid hot drinks that may burn and irritate the sores
- Avoid spices and seasonings
- Take over-the-counter or prescribed pain meds 20-30 minutes before eating
- Suck on ice chips to combat dryness and hydrate
- Use a very soft-bristled toothbrush
- Fill your freezer with low-sugar frozen yogurts, ice creams, and other desserts
- Melt honey in warm tea to soothe and coat your throat
- Take a supplement that promotes wound healing such as ProT Gold Liquid Collagen
Nausea and vomiting
As stated above, nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy. If you find that your nausea becomes severe enough that you cannot keep anything down, work with your medical provider to find some anti-nausea medication.
Always work closely with a medical professional when deciding what drugs to use, and let them know what over-the-counter medications you are taking. Some herbs can interfere with pharmaceuticals and vice versa.
To combat nausea and increase calorie intake, try the following strategies:
- Sip fluids frequently
- Try teas with ginger and/or mint
- Try combining Sprite with juice
- Add powdered electrolytes to your beverages
- Diffuse peppermint or ginger essential oil in your home
- Use cool compresses on your neck and forehead
- Avoid too much screen time (which can make nausea worse)
- Keep simple snacks close by such as crackers and bread
Some types of chemotherapy may give you constipation or diarrhea. Strong pain medications can also slow down the digestive tract.
To combat constipation, try adding more servings of fiber to each meal. This can be as simple as adding more vegetables, beans, or whole grains. A high-quality probiotic supplement or probiotic-rich foods can also help your digestive tract function normally.
If you have diarrhea, talk with your medical professional. They can prescribe medication that may help. A probiotic supplement can also be useful. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluid, with an emphasis on electrolyte-rich drinks.
During chemotherapy, certain foods can set back your healing or exacerbate the side effects of treatment. Because of that, there are foods you should try to avoid in the ideal chemo diet.
Foods to avoid during chemotherapy
Here are some foods to cut out of your diet during chemotherapy, and why:
Raw or undercooked seafood and meats
Chemotherapy weakens the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to foodborne illnesses. Consuming raw or undercooked seafood and meats increases the risk of bacterial or parasitic infections.
Unpasteurized dairy products
Unpasteurized dairy products may contain harmful bacteria that can cause infections. Chemotherapy can compromise the immune system's ability to fight off such infections, so it's safer to choose pasteurized dairy products in your chemo diet.
Raw or undercooked eggs
Eggs may carry the risk of Salmonella contamination. It's recommended to avoid raw or undercooked eggs during chemotherapy to negate the risk to your immune system.
Fruits and vegetables with thin, edible skins
We aren’t suggesting you cut these foods out entirely, just be careful around them. Pesticides and bacteria on the surface of fruits and vegetables may pose a risk to your health during chemotherapy.
Peeling or cooking these foods can reduce the risk of contamination. You should also make sure to wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
Chemotherapy can sometimes cause gastrointestinal issues, and spicy or heavily seasoned foods may exacerbate these symptoms. If you suffer from any digestive side effects of chemo, opt for milder foods that may be more tolerable.
Alcohol can interact with certain chemotherapy drugs and medications, potentially leading to adverse effects. It's generally recommended to avoid alcohol during chemotherapy to prevent complications.
Processed and fried foods
Chemotherapy patients are encouraged to focus on nutrient-dense, whole foods. Processed and fried foods often lack essential nutrients and may contribute to inflammation, which can be detrimental during chemotherapy.
Some individuals may experience increased sensitivity to caffeine or acidic foods during chemotherapy, leading to digestive issues or irritation. It may be beneficial to moderate the intake of these substances.
It is crucial to maintain proper nutrition and stay hydrated during chemotherapy, but specific dietary recommendations may vary based on individual health conditions and specific treatment regimens.
To find the chemo diet that works best for you, you should work closely with a healthcare team or a registered dietitian to create a personalized nutrition plan.
Working with your healthcare team
When you are being treated for cancer, it’s important that you form a close relationship with your healthcare team. They can help to make your experience as comfortable and smooth as possible.
Try to be open and honest with your team about your thoughts and feelings. Don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions and call them when you need to during the treatment process.
Most doctors can also refer you to a dietary specialist or medical nutrition therapist who can help you form your custom diet during chemo.
When creating your chemo diet with your healthcare team, ask them how a daily medical-grade collagen supplement can help you meet your nutritional needs and speed up your healing during chemotherapy.
FAQs about the chemo diet
Here are answers to some common questions about the chemo diet:
Why is your diet important during cancer treatment?
Your diet during chemo is crucial for maintaining strength and supporting recovery. Proper nutrition helps manage side effects, boosts immunity, and aids in tissue repair.
What are the best foods to eat during chemo?
The ideal chemo diet consists of nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. These provide essential vitamins, minerals, and energy to combat fatigue and support overall health.
What are the best foods for someone whose appetite is suffering because of chemotherapy?
One great option is a liquid collagen protein supplement, which tastes delicious, doesn’t need to be mixed with anything, and can help you reach your daily protein goals without feeling too full.
Should you take supplements during cancer treatment?
Some supplements can be extremely beneficial during cancer treatment, such as a regular collagen supplement. That being said, other supplements may make side effects worse or interfere with your treatment.
Always consult with your healthcare team before starting new supplements during chemotherapy.
How long does it take to eat normally after chemo?
Everyone’s body is different, but on average, you can phase out of the chemo diet within a few days to a week after your treatment finishes. You should gradually reintroduce foods to your diet and listen to your body to see how it reacts to different meals.