How to Build the Best Diet for Chemotherapy

Try some ginger

When it comes to nausea, the saying about an ounce of prevention really is true. Nausea is actually an incredibly complex condition that incorporates a ton of different symptoms ranging from gut and esophageal spasms to anticipatory anxiety. This means it’s harder to treat an already-queasy stomach than it is to preemptively sip on a ginger drink or chew on a piece of ginger candy. 

Drinks are a great choice because you can sip as you’re able (plus, the hydration bonus). Mix a therapeutic dose of ginger (about a teaspoon of fresh grated root) with hot or cold water, or brew a strong cup of packaged ginger tea. No matter what your favorite preventive measure is, the key is to stay tuned into your body and take action before your nausea gets unmanageable.

Don’t let yourself get too hungry

An empty belly is actually a nausea trigger for many people because spasms caused by hunger can start a chain reaction of stomach and esophageal movement that feels like queasiness. This means you shouldn’t go too long between bites and sips. A few crackers or a small mug of broth can make a difference, and if you’re not hungry at all, try setting an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to have a little something every hour or 90 minutes.

Stay hydrated 

Dehydration is problematic during chemo, because it can exacerbate nausea and make the cells and tissues of your body less resistant to damage, impacting your hunger and satiety cues as a result. (Signals for both hunger and thirst come from your hypothalamus, and when you’re dehydrated, the signals are less crisp, causing confusion between feeling full, feeling hungry, and feeling thirsty.)

Stick with sugar-free beverages like water, slowly sipped throughout the day, and remember that your water needs are higher during chemo than at other times—you want to aim to drink half your body weight in ounces (so if you weigh 140 lbs, you’d want to drink 70 oz). For a little more taste, pop a few orange slices, frozen watermelon cubes, or fresh grated ginger in a pitcher, and steep in the fridge until it reaches your preferred intensity.

Find your safe foods and rotate

“Safe foods” are plain, easily digestible foods that you can reliably eat without too much aversion (think oatmeal or mashed sweet potatoes). Identify 5-10 options, and rotate them to keep your nausea associations at bay. Everyone’s palate will differ, of course, but generally speaking, safe foods tend to be made of carbs and/or protein, and strong flavors (especially anything pungent or spicy) tend not to stay safe, even if you tolerate them well a few times. 

Think, here, of how a picky toddler likes to eat: everything predictable and familiar, no flavor, no scent, and no texture too extreme in any direction. This can be hard if food has historically been a source of pleasure in your life, but take heart—eating for chemo will only last for a finite amount of time, and you will get back to Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives soon—just not quite yet.

Rework flavors

In terms of other things to think about, some patients report developing “chemo mouth,” where certain (or even all) foods start to taste metallic. If this happens to you, sometimes reworking the flavor balance can help. Sweet or salty foods can benefit from lemon or lime. And bitter food can benefit from something sweet, like maple syrup. If everything tastes dull, adding salt or healthy fats (or both) can help.

Keep electrolytes balanced

Weight loss, dehydration, and chemo itself can cause electrolyte imbalances, but many electrolyte sports drinks are laden with sugar and/or additives. Check out clean, sugar-free products like Nuun tablets, which you add to water or seltzer to make a fizzy and refreshing replenisher.

Up your protein intake

Protein is key for rebuilding cells. It’s the building block for many parts of your body, from muscles and skin to blood and bones. Adequate protein intake—which might be way less than you’re imagining if you’re thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger chugging raw egg whites—is also important for hormone regulation, which in turn is vital for energy, stamina, and keeping hunger and satiety cues functioning properly. 

If you eat animal products, look for wild fish and pastured meat and eggs, and opt for leaner, more easily digestible cuts like chicken breasts, pork loin, and beef tri-tip. Don’t forget veggie options (soak dry beans overnight before cooking to minimize digestive upset). When supplementing with protein powder, pick one that’s made of whole food ingredients like Vital Proteins or, for plant-based diets, Hemp Yeah!

Bulk meal prep

You want to remove all obstacles between you and calories, which means that having to cook every time you need to eat is a no-go. Streamline like so: Twice a week, pick two proteins, two vegetables, and two carbs to prep. Make 3-4 days’ worth at a time, then just eat and serve individual portions throughout the week. Think simple—chicken breasts, hard-boiled eggs, cauliflower, carrots, sweet potatoes, and rice. An Instant Pot is helpful with this task, as are meal-prep delivery services like plant-based Daily Harvest and bulk-friendly Trifecta Nutrition.

Pack calories into nutritionally dense food choices

Fats used to have a bad rap, but as the science of nutrition has evolved, experts now agree that healthy fats are a vital part of a complete diet, necessary for hormone regulation, satiety cues, and proper nutrient absorption. And if you’re fighting against a calorie deficit, as many people are during treatment, fats are the most efficient way to get calories in, because they have 9 calories per gram, while carbs and protein only have 4. So get in the bang-for-your-buck mindset, keep your pantry stocked with calorie-dense options like nut butters, nibble on high-healthy-fat snacks like cheese, nuts, and avocado, and add (high-quality, grass-fed) butter, ghee, or olive oil wherever you can. 

Bail on meals—just graze

The traditional eating scheme of breakfast, lunch, and dinner just does not work on chemo belly, so give yourself permission to abandon meals in favor of mini-noshes. Aim to eat something—even if it’s tiny—at regular intervals. Starting with two to three-hour intervals and adjusting as needed is a good plan. Not hungry? Eat something anyway—your body will eventually adjust to this new schedule, and avoiding an empty stomach is part of the plan.

Go hard on produce and superfoods, and cut out toxic and inflammatory foods

Fill your plate with choices that will help your body heal and fight back, like phytochemical-rich vegetables and fruits (confirm with your healthcare team that you don’t need to limit these for any reason). Fresh produce contains antioxidants, which can neutralize damaging unstable molecules known as free radicals—this is how fruits and vegetables can fight cancer and inflammation. But don’t worry, you don’t need a degree in nutrition science—just “eat the rainbow” by selecting vegetables and fruit in different colors (each of which contains different vitamin and nutrient profiles), and cut out harmful products like refined sugar, trans fats, and processed foods (particularly processed meats).

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at [email protected].