How to Eat When You Have Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on February 10, 2023
4 min read

What you eat is really important when you have cancer. Your body needs enough calories and nutrients to stay strong. But the disease can make it hard to get what you need, which can be different before, during, and after treatment. And sometimes, you just won’t feel like eating.

You don’t need a drastic diet makeover. Just a few simple tricks to make good-for-you foods easy and appetizing.

Start focusing on healthy foods even before you begin your treatment. You don't know how it will affect you or what kind of side effects you might have. That's why it's a good idea to get good nutrition now. It can help you feel better and your body stay strong.

It’s also a good time to plan for the days when you won’t feel like making anything to eat. Fill your fridge and pantry with healthy foods, especially those that need very little (or no) cooking. Nuts, applesauce, yogurt, pre-chopped veggies, and microwaveable brown rice or other whole grains are easy options. Make batches of some of your favorite entrees and freeze them, too.

You may also want to line up some friends and family who can bring you meals for the first days or weeks of your therapy.

You may have days when you feel hungry, and others when food is the last thing you want.

On good days, eat lots of protein and healthy calories. That will keep your body strong and help repair damage from your cancer or your treatment.

High-protein foods include:

  • Lean meat, chicken, and fish
  • Eggs
  • Beans, nuts, and seeds
  • Cheese, milk, and yogurt

Try to eat at least 2 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables a day. Include dark green and deep yellow veggies, and citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits. Colorful foods like these have many healthy nutrients. Just be sure to wash them thoroughly.

Drink plenty of liquids all day. Water is a great choice. Try fresh-squeezed juice, too. It gives you some extra vitamins along with the liquid your body needs to stay hydrated.

It's also key that you don't eat raw or undercooked meat, fish, and poultry. Don't eat foods or drink beverages that are unpasteurized.

Eat when you're hungry. If that's in the morning, make breakfast your biggest meal. Drink meal replacements later if your appetite fades as the day goes on. If meals are a struggle, eat five or six small ones instead of two or three big ones during the day.

Have small, healthy snacks on hand, too. Yogurt, cereal, cheese and crackers, and soup are all good choices. If you’re having chemotherapy, a snack or small meal right before a session might keep nausea away.

Many side effects of cancer treatments can make it hard to get enough to eat. Your diet may help you get past some of the most common issues.

Nausea/vomiting: Avoid high-fat, greasy, or spicy foods, or those with strong smells. Eat dry foods like crackers or toast every few hours. Sip clear liquids like broths, sports drinks, and water.

Mouth or throat problems: For sores, pain, or trouble swallowing, stick with soft foods. Avoid anything rough or scratchy, and spicy or acidic foods. Eat meals lukewarm (not hot or cold). And use a straw for soups or drinks.

Diarrhea and constipation: For diarrhea, it’s really important to stay hydrated. Drink lots of liquids, and cut back on high-fiber foods like whole grains and vegetables. If you’re constipated, slowly add more high-fiber foods to your diet. Plenty of liquids is key for this problem, too.

Change in taste: Treatment can have a funny effect on your taste buds. Things you didn't like before might taste good now. So be open to new foods. See if you like sour or tart flavors like ginger or pomegranates. Spices such as rosemary, mint, and oregano might help you enjoy other foods, too.

Plenty of people tout "special" diets that they say will help treat cancer or keep it from coming back. Maybe you’ve heard that you should go vegan, vegetarian, or start a raw diet. Before you make any major changes, talk to your doctor.

There’s no diet that can cure cancer. There's also no good research that shows that any eating plan, like a vegetarian diet, for example, can lower the chance of cancer coming back.

Your best bet is to stick with a balanced diet with lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Limit your sugar, caffeine, salt, and alcohol.