How to Find the Right (and Nourishing) Foods for When Cancer Makes Swallowing Hard

How to Find the Right (and Nourishing) Foods for When Cancer Makes Swallowing Hard

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 1/18/22

Certain types of cancer and the side effects from some treatments can make swallowing food difficult and uncomfortable. These difficulties in swallowing are known as dysphagia, and they can happen for a few different reasons. 
Radiation can cause a host of oral issues, including sores, pain, loss of taste, and impaired salivary flow that causes “sticky saliva” and dry mouth. Both chemo and radiation can cause oral mucositis (swelling of the tissues in your mouth), and cancers of the mouth, tongue, throat, lungs, and upper GI tract can make it difficult to chew and swallow. Certain brain cancers can also affect the communication pathways between the nervous system and the throat, which can affect your ability to swallow. 
It’s important to keep your weight and nutrition on track during treatment and recovery, which means that if you’re having  issues with chewing and swallowing, finding easy-to-swallow foods that can fill your belly and nourish your body is critical. Here, we’ll share with you some ideal textures to look for, some ways to modify foods to make them more dysphagia-friendly, and some easy ways to sneak nutrition and calories in without requiring too much swallowing. 
Ideal textures  
When swallowing is challenging, you want to steer clear of anything that is dry, scratchy, tough, crunchy, sharp, or coarse—so bread, crackers, chips, cold cereal, and most preparations of meat are no-gos. Instead, look for soft, moist textures. Anything that is typically eaten with a spoon is probably a good choice. Here are some great picks to try out:
  • Soups
You want to look for blended or strained soups that are on the creamier side, and to avoid chunky versions. You can always take a thicker or chunkier soup and put it in the blender with some additional liquid to smooth it. 
  • Smoothies and shakes
A great way to get protein, fruit, and veggies in, smoothies and shakes can be based with juice, water, milk, nut milk, or coconut cream, depending on your nutritional needs and tastes. Add water or additional liquid as needed until you achieve the consistency that works for you. 
  • Juice, milk, nut milk
If a smoothie is just too much, consider sipping a liquid that offers calories. Fresh-squeezed juice is preferable to bottled (and take care to avoid options with added sugars).
  • Popsicles
You can buy popsicles or create your own with smoothies or even cold soups. For some people it is easier to suck on one than to sip the liquid. 
  • Yogurt
Try different varieties of yogurt to find one that works for you—Greek yogurt is thicker and may not work well for dysphagia, while Icelandic skyr is thinner and kefir can be sipped. These cultured dairy products have the benefit of supporting gut health. 
  • Soft scrambled eggs
Add some butter or cream and whisk constantly over a low heat to cook eggs that can be easily eaten with a spoon. 
  • Cottage or ricotta cheese
If you’re in need of protein, these fresh cheeses are far easier to swallow than animal protein. 
  • Hot cereal 
Farina, cream of wheat, and other baby-friendly cereals can be made thin and creamy for maximum swallowability.
  • Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, or cauliflower
First steam, then use a blender to mash and whip, adding butter, oil, milk, or coconut milk as per your preference to thin and moisten. 
Clever modifications to foods you know and love 
As you’re thinking about what to feed yourself, consider whether you can keep eating some of your favorites, in slightly modified form. Here are four tactics that work well for making foods easier to swallow:
  • Soften
Some foods just need to be softened a bit to become palatable and easier to swallow. Using a steam basket or a microwave can quickly take the edges off vegetables and fruit—just cook them longer than you otherwise would until you achieve a texture that can be easily cut through with the side of a spoon. 
  • Moisten
Adding fat and/or liquid can make almost any food easier to swallow. If your nutritional needs permit, add grass-fed butter, ghee, or olive oil to both the cooking process and the finished plate to enjoy foods like poached or braised meat, soft baked goods (the inside of a muffin, for example), baked fruit, and well-cooked rice. 
  • Puree 
Consider whether making a soup or smoothie out of something you’d like to eat is an option. Wanting the lycopene and fresh summer taste of an heirloom tomato? A simple gazpacho might go down easily. Craving French fries but know you can’t swallow them? Perhaps a creamy potato leek soup will do the trick. Fruit, cooked oatmeal, and nut milk can be pureed together to create a breakfast porridge that you can top with a bit of butter or coconut oil. 
  • Liquify 
When all else fails, make a drink out of what you want to eat. If salad is a no-go, make a green juice. If you want a chocolate dessert, try creamy hot cocoa. Instead of a piece of chicken, try protein and collagen-rich bone broth. Some people with dysphagia struggle more with thin liquids than thicker ones—if this is you, you may want to add gelatin or arrowroot powder as a thickening agent to achieve a safe consistency. 
Sneaky nutrient and calorie boosters
Because eating is difficult and uncomfortable with dysphagia, it can be hard to get enough calories in to maintain your weight. It’s really important to get sufficient protein when you’re fighting cancer, and it’s also a best practice to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to offer your body the benefits of various cancer-fighting antioxidants. But on some days, it’s just not possible to eat a balanced meal. Here are some ways to sneak in fat and calories, protein, and produce on those days. 
  • Protein boosters
Protein powder is a fantastic option when you’re struggling to meet your protein needs. You can choose from many sources and brands—True Nutrition offers customized blends that you can add vitamins, probiotics, and other supplements to. You can also use simple gelatin to thicken liquids and boost your protein intake. 
  • Sneaky fat and calorie add-ins
If you need calories, healthy fats are the most efficient ways to get them (fats have 9 calories per gram, as opposed to 4 for carbohydrates and proteins). Add grass-fed butter or ghee, olive or coconut oil, cream or coconut cream, mashed avocado, or egg yolks wherever they fit into what you’re preparing. 
  • Veggies when you can’t do veggies
Yes, fresh vegetables are best-case-scenario, but powdered options like Athletic Greens can bridge the gap when there’s no chance you can eat a plate of veg. You can also add powders like spirulina and chlorella for powerful nutritional boosts with no chewing required. 
Caring for your body when eating is a challenge
Staying well-nourished when you’re dealing with dysphagia is incredibly challenging. Knowing how important it is to provide your body with all the calories, protein, and antioxidants it needs to fight cancer is great motivation to push through, however, so on the days when skipping meals feels like a viable option, just remember that you can take it one day—or even one meal—at a time. These easy-to-swallow recipes from Cook for Your Life can help you plan a single meal or menus for the whole week. Finding a reliable menu of safe dysphagia-friendly food options that work for you can help take the guesswork out of how to feed yourself during this difficult time, so try out some of our ideas and see what feels good to your body. 

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