Nutrition therapy

Good nutrition and chemotherapy

As a cancer patient you may have been told that good nutrition during chemotherapy is important. Why is maintaining good nutrition during cancer treatments so important?

Benefits of good nutrition and hydration during chemotherapy may include:

  • Maintain strength and energy

  • Maintain a healthy body weight

  • Have better tolerance of side-effects related to the treatment

  • Fight infection

  • Improve healing and recovery

You may be wondering if there is a special diet to follow during chemotherapy. Don't be misled by fad diets with anti-cancer claims. There is no evidence that one single food or diet plan can prevent or cure cancer alone. There is evidence that shows that eating a healthy, balanced diet along with maintaining a healthy body weight and physical activity are the best defenses against some types of cancers.

When you are feeling well, eat a healthy diet including a variety of foods. MyPlate can help you build a healthy, balanced plate. If you are struggling with side effects from chemotherapy, choose foods that appeal to you, even if they are considered a less healthy option. During difficult times, the focus should be on getting enough calories and protein.

Below are some tips to consider for common symptoms.

No appetite

During chemotherapy you may experience a poor appetite. You may have difficulty trying to plan meals and snacks because no foods seem appealing. When appetite is poor eat small, frequent meals and snacks every 2 to 3 hours. This is generally less overwhelming than eating 3 large meals. Drinking liquids at mealtime can make you feel full. Drink most of your fluids between meals. Try different nutrition supplements as this can help you boost your nutrition. Each brand of nutrition supplements tastes a little different so give it a try to find something you can tolerate.

Altered Taste

Taste changes may occur during and after chemotherapy. If foods and beverages taste badly or taste like nothing at all, it can be difficult to be motivated to eat. Try a variety of foods to find foods that you can tolerate. Try foods with different sauces, gravies, marinades and/or seasonings. You could also try adding a splash of lemon juice to foods to try to enhance flavor. Experiment with different protein foods. If red meats taste terrible, try eggs, beans/lentils, Greek yogurt, milk, soymilk, almond milk, cheese, nuts/seeds, fish, poultry or whey protein. If you notice that plain water has a bad taste, try adding fresh slices of fruits like oranges and lemons. If you have a bad taste in your mouth between meals, try sugar-free candy/mints or sugar-free gum.

Altered smell

Pay attention to smells and avoid those that are unappealing. Smells from cooking can be a turnoff. Avoid the kitchen when meals are being prepared. Choose foods and beverages that can be consumed at room temperature or cold. Cold foods and beverages have less of an aroma compared to hot foods and beverages. Place a lid on your beverages and drink with a straw so you do not smell the liquid as you drink.


When nauseated, your first thought may be to avoid eating. If you go too long without eating, this can worsen nausea. Try to eat something, even if it’s a small snack, every 2-3 hours. You may better tolerate bland foods like saltine crackers, cold cereal, toast, cooked cereal, plain pasta or eggs (scrambled or hard boiled). Try incorporating ginger, such as ginger tea, ginger soda or ginger hard candy. If nausea persists, ask your doctor about medications for nausea.

Dry mouth

Choose foods that are soft and moist like soups, popsicles, smoothies, and thinned cooked cereals. Eat juicy, fresh fruits like watermelon or peaches. Try freezing fruits like grapes and suck on them during the day. Add sauces, broth, soups or gravies to foods. Take frequent, small sips of fluids during the day. Suck on sugar-free hard candy or chew sugar-free gum. Utilize saliva substitutes, which may be in the form of mouth rinses, sprays, or lozenge.

Are you looking for some recipes to make prior to or during cancer treatments? Visit, there are specific recipes for when you are struggling with chemotherapy-related symptoms, such as nausea, fatigue and neutropenia.

For more helpful nutrition resources, the Oncology Nutrition website has a helpful list of resources.

Kelly Nuckolls is a Registered Dietitian at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics who provides nutrition care for the inpatient oncology, bone marrow transplant, hematology and palliative care services.


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