Tips for Eating During Chemotherapy

Everyone’s experience with chemotherapy is different. People are beautifully and individually unique. Each chemotherapy and combination of medications has the potential to have a variety of side effects. Some people can experience very minimal side effects while others can have severe side effects. After years of supporting patients throughout treatment, this is a collection of my best tips.

1. This is NOT Grey’s Anatomy 

TV portrays a certain view of going through chemotherapy. One that includes lying in bed, hair falling out in clumps, grey skin tone, constant vomiting, and inability to participate in life. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you are experience an inability to keep down fluids and food, uncontrollable diarrhea, fevers, chills, lack of a bowel movement for 3 days, pain that is imacting your ability to move or sleep, PLEASE contact your medical team. These are issues that need to be addressed and you don’t need to suffer at home because you think this is what treatment should look like. If your medical team hasn’t given you a list of reasons to contact them, or their after hours contact information, you need to get that information ASAP and keep it in a safe place. Things tend to go wrong at 5 pm on Fridays. Have a plan for who to call and when you need to reach out.

2. Keep it Simple

Sometimes the foods that work best during chemotherpy are the simplist. Fatigue is a very common side effect of treatment. Spending time and energy preparing elaborate meals can leave you too exhausted to eat your meals. Meals don’t need to be complicated. Quick convenience meals may be just the thing you need right now.

3. Listen to Your Body

I despise food lists of what to eat and what not to eat. Yes, they may be helpful in some situations. But you may have enough factors making eating difficult during chemotherapy, you don’t need an additional list of things to avoid. You also don’t need pressure to eat certain foods. The goal is to eat! You don’t feel like eating kale salads every day, that’s okay. Kale can wait! You are craving a fast food milkshake…great! I’m so glad you are getting some calories and fluid.

4. Cold and Room Temperature

I probably say this phrase no less than 2,583 times per day. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration! But really, cold and room temperature foods are key during chemotherapy. Nausea is a very common side effect of many treatments. Hot foods, especially hot meats, tend to contribute to nausea. Many people say that if they smell the food before they have to eat, they aren’t going to be able to eat. I remember work with a lovely couple that struggled with this. The husband was very proud of his burgers. However, every time he made a burger, his wife couldn’t eat it. Yet when they would go to a restaurant, she would be able to devour a burger. The difference, at a restaurant, she didn’t smell the burger cooking. A easy change to grilling outside and keeping the window open while eating helped get this couple back on track to enjoying homemade burgers together again. I have found a couple caveats to this guidelines – hot soups and eggs may be well tolerated. I have no idea why eggs that have a very noxious smell work, but that’s what people tell me.

5. Liquid Calories

When eating solid food is difficult, choose calorie containing liquids. What are calorie containing liquids? Milkshakes, popsicles, some sports drinks, juices, nutritional beverages like Ensure or Boost, smoothies, hot chocolate, or your favorite latte. If you are unable to eat a meal, try drinking a high calorie beverage. Even if you are taking sips, they count! Try making your own smoothies with yogurt and fruit. If you can’t finish a smoothie, you can freeze the leftovers in an ice cube tray for another time.

6. Should you Avoid your Favorite Foods?

Over and over I see recommendations for people to avoid their favorite foods while they are undergoing chemotherapy. It’s a great thought, you don’t want to “ruin” your favorite food if you don’t like the taste of it. Or, going forward you may only associate that food with chemotherapy. Here’s the thing…you do you! If the only thing that sounds good is your mom’s homemade lasagna, give it a try. You only want a burrito from your favorite Mexican restaurant, go for it. Craving a burger from the best burger joint around, grab your favorite person and go. My point is that you don’t need to listen to blanket statements like “avoid your favorite foods”. Yup, they may apply to some people. It may work for a group of individuals. But that doesn’t mean it is going to work for you. You listen to your body and do what works for you! Choose foods based off what you decide works for you not based off fear of what wont work.

7. Eating on a Schedule

You may not have an appetite. You may not crave anything. Choosing what you want to eat can feel like a chore. However, you need to eat! Eating provides you the nourishment you need to live your best life and kick cancer’s butt! Set a schedule for yourself. If all you can muster is eating bites of food, eat bites of food every 3 hours during the day. And don’t forget to celebrate those bites! Set cell phone reminders every 3 hours. Or every time you get up to go to the bathroom, grab a bite of something to eat. Since just trying to decide what to eat can be exhausting, make a list of 10 foods that you are interested in. You can always change this list but try to keep at least 10 foods on the list at all times. And these can be simple foods like pudding, applesauce, toast with peanut butter, or one of those high calorie beverages we talked about.

8. Putting it all Together

Eating can be difficult during chemotherapy due to a variety of factors including nausea, vomiting, taste changes, feeling full quickly, and decreased appetite. If you are unable to eat or drink, make sure you connect with your health care team. Follow these top 3 tips to get you back on track:

1. Eat on a schedule

2. Focus on cold and room temperature foods.

3. Drink a high calorie beverage when eating is difficult.

Need some ideas for quick snacks?

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