12 Ways to Eat Right During Chemo
Is chemo leaving you without an appetite? Use these expert tips to help you enjoy food again—and get the nutrition you need to help your body fend off cancer.
If you're undergoing chemo, you may be faced with gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloating, diarrhea, nausea and constipation, that can leave you unable or unwilling to eat. Luckily, there are things you can do to alleviate these symptoms and get back to feeling your best.
With the help of Director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine & Digestive Center, Dr. Linda Lee, we've collected some chemo-friendly tips on how to help with some of those symptoms. Click on to learn more.
Try Mini Meals
If you're running short on calories, try eating small but frequent meals that include plenty of lean meat, vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
While you may think you need rich or fried foods to keep your calorie count high during treatment, foods that are really high in fat and calories can slow stomach emptying, which may worsen bloating and nausea and leave you unable to eat at all.
Stock up on Easy Snacks
Chemo treatments may sometimes leave you feeling too exhausted to cook. Avoid letting fatigue lead to malnutrition by stocking your house with easy, nutritious snacks you can grab with little or no prep work.
Nuts, granola bars, plain popcorn, meal replacement shakes, hard cheese and whole-wheat crackers, yogurt, bananas, berries, carrot sticks and hummus, or peanut butter and whole-wheat toast are just a few tasty options.
Adjust to New Flavors
Confused that a food you once loved is suddenly unappealing to you—or even tastes bland or metallic? No need to worry, this is a common chemo side effect, and it's only temporary.
For now, you might do better eating milder foods and may even be surprised by how good they taste. Consulting a dietitian or nutritionist can be helpful for getting new recipe ideas and making sure you're meeting your daily calorie and nutrient needs.
If possible, try to go for a medium or slow-paced walk after meals. Just 10 minutes is enough to get your food digesting and your energy up. Lying down after meals can sometimes cause stomach acid to rise back up your esophagus, leading to heartburn, indigestion and more.
If you're too fatigued to walk or stand after meals, try to sit as upright as possible, using pillows to prop up your back.
Add Ginger to Meals
Recent studies suggest that encapsulated ginger may help reduce the nausea associated with some types of chemotherapy even more effectively than OTC antinausea meds. Try adding some of the fresh, zesty root to stir fries, soups or fish dishes, or steep 1/8 tsp of fresh grated ginger in hot water to make a therapeutic tea.
Or: take a 200-mg supplement three times per day. You can find the supplements in health-food and natural-food stores, as well as some supermarkets.
Stay Hydrated—the Right Way
It's best to not drink water while you're eating—it can dilute stomach acid and make it more difficult for your stomach to process your meal. However, dehydration can worsen symptoms of nausea, vomiting and fatigue, so be sure to drink plenty of water between meals.
If you're too nauseated to drink a whole glass of water, sucking on ice cubes can help. Talk to your doctor if you experience diarrhea, as this can sometimes cause life-threatening levels of dehydration.
Stick to Water and Juice
Conventional wisdom aside, bubbly soda and seltzer water do not help settle a stomach. Although some people believe the bubbles make them burp and feel better, the effect is only temporary—and the bubbles and caffeine in some sodas can actually aggravate gassiness, bloating and heartburn.
Be Choosy About Dairy
Milk drinkers are often surprised when they become lactose intolerant during chemo and experience bloating, gassiness, cramping or diarrhea after eating dairy. The reason? Chemo drugs can prevent the small intestine from producing enough of the enzyme needed to break down the lactose found in dairy foods.
The effect is temporary, but it's best to avoid milk, creamy cheeses and ice cream until treatment is over. In the meantime, stick to almond or rice milk and harder cheeses.
Make Veggies Easier to Digest
Raw vegetables contain lots of good vitamins and minerals and are an essential part of a balanced diet, whether you're undergoing chemo or not. Unfortunately, most uncooked veggies are also very high in fiber that can be challenging for your stomach to break down. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't eat them—try blending veggies into a "green" smoothie (carrots and beets taste great blended with fruit juices) or adding them to soup. Puréed and cooked vegetables are easier for your body to digest.
Pick the Best Fruit
Your small intestine can sometimes struggle to absorb too much fructose, the main sugar found in fruit. Because of that, it's best to limit high-fructose fruits, such as melons, papaya, mango, apples and pear, to one a day to avoid discomfort. Or, stick to fruits like berries, peaches, plums, ripe bananas and citrus that are lower in fructose and easier to digest.
It's best to get your nutrients from food if you can, although in most cases taking a multivitamin or vitamin D is fine—just let your doctors know you're taking them.
Be careful about using other supplements during your therapy, as some may thin your blood or interfere with the efficacy of your treatment.
Let Family Help
When loved ones offer to cook for you, by all means, accept! This allows them into your life and able to feel connected to you. With everything else you're managing right now, there's nothing wrong with letting someone else help you out.
However, because your tastebuds or ability to process food may have temporarily changed, don't be afraid to advise them, "Sure, I'd love it if you cooked dinner for me, but right now salads are kind of upsetting my stomach, so could we skip them?"