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What to Eat During Cancer Treatment

March 18, 2024

We know cancer treatment is hard, and there’s a lot on your mind.

And if figuring out the right food to eat is bogging down your to-do list, let us take that off your plate.

“Your diet provides the body with necessary energy, protein and nutrients,” says Diane Avino, RDN, a registered dietitian in oncology with Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute. “Eating well before, during, and after treatment helps you feel better and stay stronger.”

Need specifics? Here are her recommended foods to eat (and avoid) during cancer treatment.

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Foods to eat during cancer treatment.

It all starts with a balanced meal.

“Following a balanced, healthy diet of whole foods is always the best,” says Avino. “But if you have treatment-related side effects, it may be necessary to add or avoid certain foods to help your body withstand the effects of treatment and maintain strength.”

Here are four healthy pillars to incorporate into your diet:

  1. Whole grain foods. Look for barley, brown rice, quinoa, farro and other fiber-packed whole grains.
  2. Lean protein sources. Many foods like chicken, fish, beans and legumes, low fat dairy, eggs, and peanut butter can help you meet your protein goals.
  3. Colorful fruits and vegetables. Look to the color of the rainbow to get those essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants with 5+ daily servings. (1/2 cup = 1 serving).
  4. Water. Proper hydration is important during cancer treatment. If getting enough water is challenging for you, chat with your doctor.

> Related: These 4 Foods Can Decrease Your Risk of Cancer

Foods to avoid during cancer treatment.

Cancer treatment will look different for everyone.

You may already have a list of foods/drinks that don’t sit well with you.

If you’re new to treatment, Avino has an initial list to help point you in the right direction. Here are some general recommendations for food/drinks to skip during cancer treatment, including:

  1. Processed foods
  2. Foods with added sugars
  3. Drinks with added sugars
  4. Foods that your body doesn’t tolerate (due to treatment or previously)

Can these food recommendations help manage the side effects of cancer treatment?

“Yes, absolutely,” answers Avino. “First and foremost, consuming enough calories and protein helps the body maintain strength when dealing with side effects. Adding or avoiding certain foods may also help prevent worsening side effects.”

And based on the symptoms or side effects you may be experiencing, you can make changes to your diet as you go.

“We can make alterations,” says Avino. “For example, if you’re having diarrhea, we can modify foods consumed to prevent diarrhea from getting worse.”

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Need more help with your nutrition plan during cancer treatment?

If you, or someone you know, is receiving cancer treatment, nutrition is a big part of your care plan.

If you have questions or need help mapping this out, Avino urges you to ask your oncologist for a referral to a registered dietitian.

“Attaining and maintaining a balanced, healthy diet will help the body to function at its best,” she says. “Fueling your body with nutrients will help to mitigate side effects and meet your treatment goals.”

Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute