Eating Well During Chemotherapy

It is very important to eat well while you are getting chemotherapy. Eating well during chemotherapy means choosing a balanced diet that contains all the nutrients the body needs. Eating well also means having a diet high enough in calories to keep your weight up and high enough in protein to rebuild tissues that cancer treatment may harm. People who eat well can cope with side effects and fight infection better. Also, their bodies can rebuild healthy tissues faster.

What If I Don't Feel Like Eating?

On some days you may feel you just cannot eat. You can lose your appetite if you feel depressed or tired. (See "Getting the Support You Need" for advice). Or, side effects such as nausea or mouth and throat problems may make it difficult or painful to eat (see "Mouth, Gum, and Throat Problems" for helpful hints). In some cases, if you cannot eat for a long period of time, your doctor may recommend that you be given nutrition intravenously until you are able to eat again.

When a poor appetite is the problem, try these suggestions:

  • Eat frequent, small meals or snacks whenever you want, perhaps four to six times a day. You do not have to eat three regular meals each day.
  • Keep snacks within easy reach, so you can have something whenever you feel like it.
  • Even if you do not want to eat solid foods, try to drink beverages during the day. Juice, soup, and other fluids like these can give you important calories and nutrients.
  • Vary your diet by trying new foods and recipes.
  • When possible, take a walk before meals; this may make you feel hungrier.
  • Try changing your mealtime routine. For example, eat in a different location.
  • Eat with friends or family members. When eating alone, listen to the radio or watch TV.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse about nutrition supplements.
  • Speak with your dietician about your specific nutrition needs.

The National Cancer Institute's booklet, Eating Hints for Cancer Patients: Before, During & After Treatment, provides more tips about how to make eating easier and more enjoyable. It also gives many ideas about how to eat well and get extra protein and calories during cancer treatment.

Can I Drink Alcoholic Beverages?

Small amounts of alcohol can help you relax and increase your appetite. On the other hand, alcohol may interfere with how some drugs work and/or worsen their side effects. For this reason, some people must drink less alcohol or avoid alcohol completely during chemotherapy. Ask your doctor if and how much beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages you can drink during treatment.

Can I Take Extra Vitamins and Minerals?

You can usually get all the vitamins and minerals you need by eating a healthy diet. Talk to your doctor, nurse, registered dietician, or a pharmacist before taking any vitamin or mineral supplements. Too much of some vitamins and minerals can be just as dangerous as too little. Find out what is recommended for you.

For more information about cancer therapy side effects, and coping with them, please read the  "Chemotherapy and Cancer Treatment, Coping with Side Effects" article.

SOURCE: National Cancer Institute (

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Last Editorial Review: 8/8/2006