Chemotherapy has helped many cancer patients to go into remission and be cancer-free.
But it doesn’t come without side effects, though – some of which can interrupt your lifestyle and normal routines.
Modifying your diet can help offset some of these side effects and can also improve your overall health and well-being while you undergo chemo.
In this article, we’ll discuss some foods to avoid while on chemo and offer suggestions for foods to eat instead.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy (chemo) is a method of treating cancer by administering chemical substances that can kill cancer cells.
When you start chemotherapy, you’ll likely follow a specific regimen using one or more chemotherapy drugs to treat your specific type of cancer.
Chemotherapy is generally administered intravenously (through your veins) in an infusion, but it is also available orally in pill form.
Some of the most commonly used chemotherapy drugs include:
There are other types of chemotherapy drugs, some of which are best used during specific phases of the cancer cycle.
Side effects of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy can help kill cancer cells, but it can also damage your healthy cells (similar to how antibiotics kill bad bacteria but can also kill the good bacteria in your gut).
The side effects of chemotherapy will vary depending on your chemo regimen, dosage, and other factors.
According to the American Cancer Society, you might experience some of these side effects while undergoing chemotherapy:
- Hair loss (one of the most well-known side effects of chemo)
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Anemia (having a low red blood cell count)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Changes in appetite
- Digestive changes, including constipation and diarrhea
- Mouth, tongue, and throat sores/painful swallowing
- Weight changes
Considerations for your diet during chemotherapy
Your diet during chemotherapy will depend on what kind of side effects you’re experiencing. For instance, if you’re suffering from chemo-related constipation, you’ll want to eat foods that help prevent constipation, such as high-fiber foods.
If you’re experiencing diarrhea from chemo, you’ll want to avoid very high-fiber foods and focus on soft, bland foods instead.
You might require more calories than normal during chemotherapy as your body undergoes extra stress from the treatment.
Calories and protein are among the most important nutrients to maintain, especially if you’re experiencing a reduced appetite or issues keeping food down because of nausea and vomiting.
Chemotherapy can damage your immune system by reducing levels of white blood cells, which help to fight infection.
Chemo can reduce your immune system’s effectiveness for as long as several months after your last dose.
Therefore, it’s important to practice good food safety habits and food prep to minimize the risk of getting a foodborne infection.
Practicing good food safety habits is essential while you undergo chemo, such as washing your hands and countertops before preparing food, cooking food thoroughly, and avoiding foods that can harbor bacteria, such as undercooked meat or eggs.
Your taste might be impacted by chemo, meaning that food won’t taste the same as it did before chemo.
A metallic taste in your mouth and mouth sores are among common chemo side effects.
A metallic taste can be covered up by using herbs and spices to mask this taste in your mouth.
Mouth sores call for a soft, bland diet avoiding potentially irritating foods like citrus fruits.
Foods to avoid while on chemo
Raw or undercooked meat/eggs
You’re at greater risk of getting an infection while on chemo since the drugs kill beneficial immune-boosting cells.
Eating raw or undercooked meat and eggs puts you at risk of getting an infection (cooking food to the right temperature kills potential foodborne bacteria).
To reduce your risk of infection while on chemo, avoid raw or undercooked meat such as rare steaks, egg dishes with “runny” yolks, and sushi.
When cooking meat and egg dishes, make sure they reach the minimum internal temperatures:
- All types of poultry (whole and ground): 165 degrees Fahrenheit
- Ground meat and egg dishes: 160 degrees Fahrenheit
- Fish, steaks, roasts: 145 degrees Fahrenheit (beef, veal, pork, and lamb should rest for an additional three minutes before consuming)
You should avoid unpasteurized products such as cheeses and dairy products which may harbor bacteria.
You should also avoid unpasteurized juices and ensure all fruits and vegetables are properly washed before use.
Refined and highly-processed foods
To help support your body’s immune system, you should focus on whole foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that nourish your body.
Highly refined and processed foods are lower in nutrients and won’t offer as much nutritional benefit, which may impair your overall health and response to the chemo. You should avoid eating processed food as much as you can to stay healthy.
Some examples of refined and processed foods to avoid while on chemo include:
- Refined grains like white bread/bagels, etc.
- Sugary foods like sweetened cereal, sugary snacks/desserts
- Sugary beverages, including soda and fruit-flavored drinks
- Microwaveable “TV dinners”
High-fat/greasy foods (for nausea)
If you’re experiencing nausea from chemo, avoiding high-fat foods can help. High-fat foods take longer to digest and stay in your stomach longer than lower-fat foods, which can worsen nausea and vomiting.
Some high-fat foods to avoid for nausea and vomiting from chemo include:
- Non-lean cuts of beef
- Non-lean cuts of pork
- Poultry with the skin on
- Lard and cream
- Ice cream
- Coconut (including coconut oil)
- Palm oil and palm kernel oil
- Some baked and fried foods
Foods to eat while undergoing chemo
Eating enough protein while on chemo is important for supporting your body’s ability to heal and recover from the adverse effects of chemo.
In addition, eating adequate amounts of protein can help support muscle mass, which can deteriorate if you’re experiencing weight loss.
- Lean cuts of meat (lean beef, pork tenderloin, etc.)
- Skinless, white meat poultry
- Well-cooked eggs
- Well-cooked white meat fish like tuna, tilapia, and cod
- Beans and lentils
- Low-fat dairy products like yogurt
- High-protein grains/seeds like quinoa and whole grains
- Protein shakes as needed (opt for lower-sugar options)
Fat is an important nutrient that helps provide much-needed calories during chemo. Adding fat to foods is a great way to help keep your weight up if you’re experiencing weight loss from chemo.
However, the type of fat you eat is important since not all types of fat are created equally.
Fats that are considered “healthy” are unsaturated fats, which primarily come from plant foods but are also found in some animal foods.
These fats can have anti-inflammatory properties and are richer in nutrients than many types of saturated fats, which are primarily found in foods from animal sources.
Some sources of healthy fats include:
- Vegetable oils like olive oil and canola oil
- Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
- Fish oil or algae oil
Fruits and vegetables
Chemotherapy can promote inflammation, which is why eating fruits and vegetables are important during your chemo journey.
All fruits and vegetables are beneficial, but some with the highest antioxidant concentrations include:
- Red kidney beans
- Black beans
- Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, etc.)
- Sweet potatoes
Bland foods (for nausea and/or mouth sores)
Bland foods are lower in fat and fiber, and are low-acidity. This can be beneficial if you’re experiencing nausea, vomiting, or painful mouth sores.
Some bland foods to eat while on chemo (if needed) include:
- Plain toast or crackers
- Plain noodles or rice
- Soft fruits like bananas, applesauce, canned fruit, etc.
- Well-cooked white fish like cod, tilapia
- Well-cooked plain meat like shredded chicken breast
In addition, soft foods can be helpful for mouth sores, such as pudding, gelatin, mashed potatoes, and smoothies.
If you’re not experiencing diarrhea, whole grains can be beneficial by providing beneficial fiber, vitamins, and protein that refined grains lack.
Whole grains are also helpful if you’re experiencing chemo-related constipation.
Some nutritious whole grains to include in your chemo diet include:
- Whole wheat products (whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, etc.)
- Whole-grain brown, red, or black rice
Chemotherapy might cause you to become anemic, which is when you have fewer red blood cells.
Iron-rich foods help build red blood cells, which are important for carrying oxygen and nutrients to your body.
Some of the best iron-rich foods to eat while on chemo are:
- Red meat
- Shellfish (oysters, clams, etc. – must be well-cooked)
- Liver and organ meats (e.g., liver)
- Nuts & seeds
- Soybeans/soy products like tofu
- Cereals and grains fortified with iron
- Dried fruit
Herbs and spices
Herbs and spices can help add flavor if you’re experiencing changes in taste, including a metallic taste in your mouth. Some herbs and spices also have cancer-fighting properties, such as:
- Ginger (also good for nausea)
Tips for managing side effects
It’s important to drink plenty of fluids while you undergo chemo to offset any dehydrating side effects like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Broth is another clear liquid that can help replace lost sodium from excessive vomiting or diarrhea.
Get enough rest
Chemo can make you feel tired, which can amplify other negative side effects. Make sure you allow yourself time to rest, including taking naps when you need it.
Eat small meals and snacks
If your appetite is suffering from chemo or if you’re experiencing nausea and vomiting, eating small meals and snacks can help.
Focus on protein if you’re not able to eat much, which is important for helping your body recover.
Which foods you avoid while on chemo will depend on your specific side effects. In general, some foods to avoid while on chemo include refined/processed foods, high-fat/greasy foods, and undercooked meats/eggs.
Focusing on nutrient-rich foods, including lean protein, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, can help support your energy and nutrient needs while on chemo.