What to Eat Before, During and After Chemo

By Kathleen Engel
Reviewed by Marc Garnick, MD, and Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

  • Get the Nutrition You Need During Chemo
  •  

    What you eat and when you eat it has a big impact on how you’ll feel during your chemotherapy. Here, tips from certified specialist in oncology nutrition, Holly Mills, RD, CSO, who teaches you how to boost your stamina and feel your best before, during and after chemo.

  • Before chemo: boost your health and stamina Here’s what you’ll need:
  •  

    Before chemo: your goal is to boost your health and stamina. Here’s what you’ll need:

    Lean protein: such as turkey, chicken, fish (Eat less than 18 oz. per week of red meat—such as hamburger, pork and lamb—says the American Institute for Cancer Research [AICR]. Avoid processed meats, like ham, hot dogs and sausages.)

  • Whole grains
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    Whole Grains

    Think oats, brown rice.

     

  • Fruits and vegetables
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    Fruits and Vegetables

    Enjoy a variety, including crucifers such as broccoli and cauliflower, leafy greens like chard and spinach, and winter squashes. Have an apple or berries for dessert.

  • Healthy fats
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    Healthy Fats

    Focus on fats found in extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts and nut butters, fatty fish such as salmon.

  • Water:
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    Water

    Aim for 8-10 cups of fluids a day. Adequate fluid intake helps your body function properly and can prevent constipation. “Start now so when you begin chemo, staying hydrated is not so overwhelming,” says Mills. Top picks: water, seltzer, chicken broth, decaffeinated beverages and ice pops. If you want juice, limit your intake to one glass a day and make it 100% fruit juice, with no added sugar.

  • Easy-to-digest foods
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    During chemo: your goal is to manage side effects and maintain stamina. Here’s what you’ll need:

    Easy-to-digest foods: Swap baked chicken, potato and a cooked vegetable for chicken parm. “Spicy, fried or acidic foods can aggravate any side effects you may have,” says Mills. “Eat what you can tolerate, but try to make your meals balanced.” The better your diet now, the easier you can cope with treatment.

  • More protein
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    More Protein

    Your protein needs may be slightly higher now. That’s because protein is used to heal tissues, maintain muscle mass and strengthen your immune system so you can fight infection. If meats are unappetizing, try softer options like eggs, Greek yogurt (higher in protein than regular yogurt), and low-fat cottage and ricotta cheese.

  • Water:
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    Water

    Keep up your fluid intake, especially if you’re experiencing diarrhea or vomiting, which can result in dehydration. Staying hydrated eases symptoms, such as constipation, fatigue, dry mouth or thick saliva.

  • Balanced, healthy meals:
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    After chemo: your goal is to eat to regain your stamina. Here’s what you’ll need:

    Balanced, healthy meals: Eating well boosts your strength and energy so you can get back on your feet. “Make diet—not supplements—your first defense against cancer,” adds Mills. If there were healthy foods you couldn’t stomach during chemo, add them back in to your diet as your side effects resolve.

  • Plant foods:
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    Plant Foods

    Fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, says the AICR. These are rich in antioxidants and plant chemicals that can protect your cells from damage that can lead to cancer.

  • Individual dietary needs:
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    Individual Dietary Needs

    Now that you’ve made it through treatment, your doctor may suggest new goals. Find out what should be top of mind when planning meals. Losing 20 pounds? Cutting down on sugar? Eating more vegetables? Your motivation may never be greater than it is right now.

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