Nutrition and Cancer

Healthy nutrition during cancer treatment is an important part of any treatment plan. However, based on several factors (type and dose of treatment, length of treatment, type of cancer and/or other stressors) your appetite may be affected. There may be times when you do not feel like eating or when food just does not taste good to you. Definitely talk with your doctor or nurse if you are having significant changes in your appetite and ask to be referred to a registered dietitian or nutritionist. A dietitian/nutritionist is the best person to talk with about your concerns with food and diet. He or she can help choose foods and drinks that are best for you during treatment and after. Though it is easier said than done, eating the right kinds of foods before, during, and after treatment can make a difference in your experience during cancer treatment and recovery.

Helpful Tips to Manage and Improve your Nutrition During Cancer Treatment

  • When you just don’t feel like eating, consider drinking a liquid or powdered meal replacement (such as “instant breakfast”).
  • Consider eating 5 or 6 small meals each day instead of 3 large meals.
  • You may find it helps to eat smaller amounts at any one time. This can keep you from feeling too full and may help reduce nausea.
  • Keep snacks nearby for when you feel like eating. Take easy-to-carry snacks such as peanut butter crackers, nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit when you go out.
  • Find ways to add extra protein and healthy calories to your diet.
  • Drink liquids throughout the day—even when you do not want to eat. Choose liquids that add calories and other nutrients such as juice, soup, and milk and soy-based drinks with protein.
  • Try eating a light bedtime snack. This will give extra calories but won’t affect your appetite for the next meal.
  • Change the form of a food. For instance, you might make a fruit milkshake or smoothie instead of eating a piece of fruit.
  • Eat soft, cool, or frozen foods. These include yogurt, milkshakes, and popsicles.
  • Eat larger meals when you feel well and are rested. For many people, this is in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
  • Sip only small amounts of liquids during meals. Many people feel too full if they eat and drink at the same time. If you want more than just small sips, have a larger drink at least 30 minutes before or after meals.

Recommended Nutrient Rich Foods

 The National Cancer Institute has a helpful resource called Eating Hints.* 

The following is a list of easily available and highly recommended nutrient rich foods—try including more of these in your daily diet:

  • Citrus fruits—1/2 grapefruit, 1 medium orange, 1 medium tangerine, or 1/2 to 2/3 a cup of their juices per day as a serving.
  • Colorful vegetables—a 1 cup serving eaten 2–3 times per day is ideal. Reach for sweet potatoes, spinach, squash, and pumpkin.
  • Cruciferous vegetables—a 1-cup serving at least 3 times per week is ideal, and will stimulate enzymes that break down cancer-causing chemicals. Reach for broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, or kale.
  • Fish—3–6oz. servings 2–3 times per week is ideal (but no more than 12oz. per week. Fish also helps to keep cholesterol and blood pressure within normal ranges. Choose sardines, herring, anchovies, wild salmon, canned salmon, light canned tuna, Atlantic mackerel, black cod and striped bass. There are some contaminants in fish, so to reduce them, remove the skin and fat beneath the fish with a sharp knife before cooking. Bake, broil or grill your fish instead of sautéing or frying. Do not use batter or breading, as these trap the fat drippings.
  • Flaxseed—gradually working up to adding 2 tbs. per day may lower hormone levels and slow tumor growth. Use flaxseed or flaxmeal and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Women with hormone related cancers (such as breast, uterine, or ovarian) may consider avoiding or limiting flax due to estrogen activity in the flax.
  • Legumes—½ cup serving eaten 4–5 times per may protect against DNA damage. Buy lentils, beans, peas—fresh, dried, or canned.
  • Yogurt—½ cup serving eaten daily provides probiotics (healthy bacteria that can boost immunity), in addition to calcium and protein. Select a low-fat variety with many different kinds of live cultures.
  • Tea (green, black, white or oolong teas are all recommended)—drink 2–3 cups each day. Tea neutralizes harmful free radicals.

Other Important Considerations for your Cancer Diet

  • It is recommended that cancer survivors in particular consume more than 5 servings of a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits each day, ideally 8-10 servings. As a standard, ½ cup is a serving.
  • Try to eat at least 3 servings of whole grains every day, rather than other starches. One serving could be: 1 slice whole grain bread • 1/2 cup whole grain pasta or rice • 1 six-inch whole wheat tortilla • 1/2 whole wheat bagel or pita • 6 whole wheat crackers.
  • Limit fat intake to about 20 to 25 percent of daily calories, or about 44 to 55 grams of fat per day. Look at the Total Fat Grams on food labels and simply add up the numbers on a daily basis.
  • Try limiting the amount of red meat you eat to less than 3 oz. per week—a portion roughly equal to the size of a deck of cards or a computer mouse.
  • Include dairy in your diet, but if possible select organic, low-fat or non-fat dairy products. (i.e.: skim, 1/2 percent, or 1 percent milk).

*This National Cancer Institutes's Eating Hints is available online at

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