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Cancer Health Center

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Healthy Eating When You're Sick

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Eating healthy meals isn't easy when you don't feel well, especially if you have a serious or chronic illness. You may be too tired to prepare food for yourself. Medicines may make food taste strange or unpleasant. Mouth sores or swallowing problems can make eating difficult. Or nausea, which is a common symptom and a common side effect of some medications, may make food the last thing you want to think about.

"Fortunately, there's a lot you can do, even when you're not feeling well, to get the nutrition you need," says Veronica McLymont, PhD, RD, director of food and nutrition services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

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Lack of Appetite

Eat smaller meals more frequently through the day than you do when you're healthy. "We tend to eat with our eyes," says Sarah Rafat, RD, senior dietitian at MD Anderson Cancer Center. "Sitting down to too big a meal can seem overwhelming if you don't have much of an appetite." Make a list of comfort foods that you love and have one or two on hand for when you feel like eating. Also keep nutritious snacks handy, such as nuts, carrot sticks, or yogurt.

Mouth Sores, Dry Mouth, or Trouble Swallowing

Avoid foods that require a lot of chewing. Puree or grind foods like meat and vegetables to make them easier to eat. Liquid foods such as soups and smoothies are also good options. "Real foods are always the best choice," says Kim Jordan, RD, director of nutrition at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, part of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. "But if you’re having serious problems eating and swallowing, talk to your doctor about liquid meal replacements." For dry mouth, try chewing gum or sucking on hard candies like lemon drops, which stimulates saliva production.


Choose bland foods. Eat smaller meals more often during the day than you would when you are healthy. Eat slowly. Hard candy, peppermint, and ginger may ease nausea. If nausea persists, talk to your doctor. An anti-nausea medicine may help.


When you're sick, you may feel too tired to make a meal. Stock up on prepared foods that you can easily pop in the microwave, such as frozen lasagna or pot pies. Keep nutritious snacks on hand such as nuts, sliced vegetables, hardboiled eggs, whole grain breakfast cereal, or yogurt. Eat your biggest meal at a time when you have the most energy.

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