During cancer treatment and recovery, you need to adapt what you eat to cope with your body’s changing nutritional needs.
- You may need more energy (kJ/kcal). Eat small, frequent meals or snacks, rather than three large meals a day.
- If you start to lose weight, read below for practical suggestions on gaining weight. Ask for a referral to a dietitian if weight loss is an ongoing and significant issue.
- Do some light physical activity, such as walking, to improve appetite and mood, reduce fatigue, help digestion and prevent constipation.
- Check with your doctor or dietitian before taking vitamin or mineral supplements or making other changes to your diet.
- Try to maintain your weight to speed up recovery.
- Eat a variety of foods and do some physical activity to rebuild muscles and recover from treatment side effects.
- If you are still experiencing treatment side effects that impact on what you can eat and drink, continue to follow the relevant suggestions below. You can also talk to a dietitian for further assistance.
- Focus on healthy eating once you’ve recovered from the side effects of treatment. Refer above on ‘why eating well is important’.
Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active to help lower the chance of cancer coming back. Call us for information on physical activity guidelines on adults.
- See your doctor for regular check ups.
Living with advanced cancer
- Good nutrition can help improve quality of life.
- Adjust your food choices and eating patterns to meet your changing nutritional needs.
- Talk to your doctor about medicines suitable for boosting your appetite.
- Relax dietary restrictions, e.g. choose full cream rather than low fat milk.
- Consider using nutritional supplements if you can’t eat enough. Discuss options with your doctor, palliative care specialist or dietitian.
Treatment side effects and nutrition
- The side effects vary from person to person, part of the body treated, type of treatment, length and dose of treatment. Most side effects are temporary and go away after treatment ends. There are ways to control and manage side effects.
How to manage fatigue
- Plan ahead for when you feel too tired to cook. Prepare food in advance and store in the freezer.
- Cook in the morning when you are less likely to be tired.
- Shop online for groceries if you don’t have the energy to go to the supermarket.
- Ask and accept offers of help with shopping and cooking from family and friends.
- Do regular exercise to help improve fatigue and appetite.
- Keep snacks such as muesli bars, dried fruit, nuts and crackers in handy locations, e.g. in your bag or car.
- Use services like home delivery meal companies that bring pre-prepared food to you.
- Eat with others to encourage your appetite, particularly if you feel too tired to eat.
How to manage loss of appetite
- Eat small meals frequently, e.g. 2-3 hours. Keeping to a regular eating pattern rather than waiting until you’re hungry will mean your body gets the nourishment it needs to maintain your weight.
- Use smaller plate – a big plate, full plate of food may put you off eating.
- Eat what you feel like, when you feel like it.
- Include a variety of foods in your diet as this many help improve your overall intake.
- Sip fluids throughout the day, and replace water, tea and coffee with drinks or soups that add energy, such as milk, milkshake, smoothie or soup.
- Avoid dietary restrictions. During treatment, maintain your weigh or regaining weight you have lost is more important than avoiding full fat and other high-energy foods.
- Gentle physical activity can stimulate appetite.
- Make meals as enjoyable as possible e.g. eat with friends
How to manage changes in taste or smell
- Add extra flavour to food if it tastes bland e.g. fresh herbs, lemon, lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, honey, chili, pepper.
- Experiment with different food, as your tastes may change. You may no loner like bitter drinks or sweet good even if you liked them before treatment.
- If meat tastes bad during treatment, replace it with other protein sources e.g. cheese, nuts, dairy foods, baked beans.
- Add small amounts of sugar to food if it tastes bitter or salty.
- Use a straw so the taste of drinks isn’t as strong.
- Choose cold food or food at room temperature- hot food smells stronger.
- Reheat pre-prepared meals in the microwave so the cooking smell doesn’t put you off eating.
- Stay out of the kitchen, if possible, when food is being prepared. Ask family or friends to cook.
- Turn on the exhaust fan, open a window to help reduce cooking smells
How to relieve a dry mouth
- Keep your mouth clean with regular mouthwashes to prevent infections.
- Gargle with ½ tsp salt in a glass of water.
- Choose an alcohol-free mouthwash to avoid irritating your mouth further.
- Use a soft toothbrush when cleaning your teeth.
- Ask your dentist or health care team about suitable mouth rinses or oral lubricants.
- Limit alcohol and coffee as these are dehydrating fluids, and avoid smoking.
- Avoid rough, crunchy or dry foods (e.g. chips, nuts, toast, dry biscuits), salty or spicy foods that sting your mouth, or very hot or cold food.
- Soften food by dipping it into milk, soup, tea or coffee, or moisten with sauce, gravy, cream, custard, etc.
- Cut, mince or puree food to avoid drying out food with too much chewing.
- Sip fluids with meals and throughout the day.
- Chew sugar-free gum to stimulate the flow of saliva.
- Suck on ice cubes to keep your mouth moist.
How to manage heartburn
- Avoid large meals; try to eat 3 small meals and 3 small snacks throughout the day.
- Eat slowly and take the time to enjoy your meal.
- Avoid wearing tight clothing while eating, especially belts.
- Sip fluids between meals, rather than drinking large amounts at mealtimes.
- Limit or avoid foods that may make heartburn worse, eg chocolate, highly seasoned spicy foods, high-fat foods (e.g. fried food, pastries, cream, butter and oils), tomato and tomato products, citrus fruits, coffee, strong tea, soft drinks and alcohol.
- Straight after eating, sit upright for at least 30 minutes and avoid lying down or activities that involve bending over.
How to manage weight loss
- Treat food like medicine: something you have to have. Set times for meals and snacks rather than waiting until you’re hungry.
- Carry snacks such as hard-boiled eggs, muesli bars, dried fruit and nuts, crackers and fruit buns.
- Try ready-to-use drinks if travelling or if preparation is difficult. Examples include Sustagen, Ensure, and Prosure.
- Choose nourishing and higher calorie fluids or snacks, for example, drink milk rather than water and choose cheese and biscuits over lollies.
- Include high-energy and high-protein foods at every meal or snack.