What to eat during chemo

Chemotherapy is a broad term that covers many different drug regimens so it is hardly surprising that it affects people in very different ways.  For that reason, there really is no ‘best diet’ to eat while undergoing chemo. Although, for many, the standard advice to ‘eat what you fancy’ is also not that helpful. If you’re looking for ways to minimise your side effects and maximise your treatment, through nutrition, here are a few areas to consider:


Opt for easy-to-digest foods

This may vary from person to person but usually means more cooked foods than raw. Soups and smoothies can be both easy to digest and soothing if you have a sore mouth. Thy also help to increase hydration which is very important during cancer treatment.


Get most of your carbohydrate from vegetables

Vegetables should make up the lion’s share of your meals. Carrots(1), sweet potatoes, parsnips, beetroot and butternut squash are good sources of carbohydrate and also provide vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients. Add in as many other vegetables as possible to maximise the nutrients in your diet. 


Add onions and garlic to meals as often as possible

Both onions and garlic are known for their immune boosting and anti-cancer effects. Recent research shows that the stronger flavoured varieties are even better(2) but in general, use whatever you can get hold of as often as possible.


Add easily digested protein

Turn your vegetables into a nourishing soup by simmering them in chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible) with onion, garlic and herbs and spices. Add a little chicken or pre-soaked and cooked red lentils for an easily digested protein source. Blend your soup to make it easier to digest.

Other options – try making vegetable smoothies with added pea protein. Eggs can also be easy to digest and are a very versatile protein source.


Add soluble fibre

Stewed apples and pears are a great source of soluble fibre. Add cinnamon for flavour and anti-cancer properties and ground flax seed to further boost the fibre. This should really help keep you regular and is a great dessert option with no added sugar. 


Herbs and spices for flavour and for their cancer fighting properties.

You’ll need to experiment here. If you’ve lost your sense of taste then use plenty of herbs and spices to add flavour and to tempt your remaining taste buds. However, if you can’t stomach strong flavours, try adding milder herbs to soups and stews and cinnamon to stewed fruit.

Most herbs and spices contain cancer-fighting phytonutrients so, like vegetables, the general rule is the more variety, the better. Parsely has been shown to have cancer fighting properties and turmeric is anti-inflammatory.


Stay hydrated with water and herbal teas

You may need more liquids during chemo, especially if you are being sick or have diarrhoea. Minimise caffeine from regular tea and coffee as this puts more pressure on your body’s detoxification systems. Instead opt for herbal teas. Ginger tea or ginger infusion (steep sliced fresh root ginger in hot water) can help combat nausea and camomile tea is very calming on the digestive system. Fruit teas can add sweetness and flavour if you find yourself getting bored with water. They are lovely served cold with ice. You can even add a few berries and some mint if you want it to feel extra special.


If you’ve lost your appetite, try eating smaller, more frequent meals

Base them on protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables. For example, hummus with carrot sticks, peanut butter with celery or banana, ‘muffins’ made from eggs and stir fried onions, garlic, peppers and mushroom, a handful of almonds or some almond butter with an apple. 


If your immune system is low, go for well cooked foods

Your gut microbes play a key role in your immune system(3) so if your chemotherapy has wiped out your immunity, this is going to impact your digestion. It also means you are less able to kill off any pathogens that arrive with your food. By opting for well cooked foods, you may reduce the nutritional value slightly but you’ll be helping protect your body from infections.


Avoid grapefruit

Grapefruit and grapefruit juice, impact your detoxification processes in your liver and can increase the side effects of many drugs including chemotherapy drugs so they are best avoided during chemo.


1.    Kee W. Tan, Daniel P. Killeen, Yan Li, James W. Paxton, Nigel P. Birch, Arjan Scheepens. Dietary polyacetylenes of the falcarinol type are inhibitors of breast cancer resistance protein (BCRP/ABCG2). European Journal of Pharmacology, 2014; 723: 346 DOI: 10.1016/j.ejphar.2013.11.005
2.    American Chemical Society. "Strong-flavored Onions Show Promise For Fighting Cancer." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 October 2004. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases
3.    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3298082/