It goes without saying: undergoing chemotherapy to treat or slow the growth of cancer can impact your whole life.
“Going through chemo is hugely overwhelming,” says Lauren Atkins, oncology dietitian at OnCore Nutrition. “It throws your life upside down.”
Atkins explains that although cooking can generate a lot of joy throughout the course of our life, it may be the last thing a person going through chemotherapy wants to think about.
"If you’re going through chemo, it may be far more important to you to get to your oncology appointment than it is to get to the supermarket and buy fresh produce to prepare a nutritious meal to eat at home.”
“As you can imagine, in a stressful situation like this, a lot of general day-to-day activities fall off your plate as they no longer become priority,” says Atkins who’s been treating the nutritional needs of patients going through chemotherapy for over a decade.
“If you’re going through chemo, it may be far more important to you to get to your oncology appointment than it is to get to the supermarket and buy fresh produce to prepare a nutritious meal to eat at home.”
Yet, maintaining a good standard of nutrition that’s specific to your needs is vital. Atkins says a quality diet during chemotherapy can help to feed your healthy cells and maintain your body’s essential physical functions.
Atkins adds that the quantity of food you eat during chemo also needs to increase. “High cell turnover [during chemo] can increase energy and protein requirements, often elevating these to up to 125-150 per cent of usual baseline needs. This means that someone undergoing high-risk chemotherapy may need to eat for 1.5 people.”
This can be really challenging, especially for those battling common side effects (fatigue, nausea, vomiting, changes to your sense of taste and smell, mouth ulcers, diarrhoea, and constipation) that may impair appetite or ability to eat a hearty meal.
How do you eat more food while battling side effects?
Although there’s no magic food or diet plan that will help everyone in the same way, there are a few important nutritional considerations for most people going through chemotherapy. Here are Atkins’ general tips for what and how to eat.
Eat small meals, often
This piece of advice may sound counterintuitive if you don’t feel like eating, but Atkins says that eating healthy snacks every two hours – or six small meals a day – may help increase appetite.
“The biggest thing that’s important for the preservation of appetite is to try and not stop eating in the first place. You don’t need to eat large full meals or eat as you used to, but if you can keep even a small amount of food coming into your body every few hours, it will prevent your body going into a state of starvation, help your metabolism and preserve your appetite.”
Avoid energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Food suggestions include natural yoghurts, healthy dips, nuts and seeds, fruit toast, natural protein balls, fruit smoothies, baked beans, and ricotta on wholegrain crackers.
Re-consider spicy foods if you’re not used to them
Food from different cultures can present various challenges during chemotherapy. For example, Atkins says, “spicy foods may be irritating if the lining of your mouth and stomach are ulcerated. Imagine a hot curry or lemon juice on a burn. Avoid spicy or acidic foods if they make you feel uncomfortable.”
This advice depends on your tolerance for spicy foods and cultural food practices, before chemotherapy. “If you can tolerate spicy foods, enjoy them. Adding spices to a dish to increase flavour may also help for those struggling with taste changes.”
“If you can tolerate spicy foods, enjoy them."
Fortify your food
Fortifying food means maximising the nutritional content of a meal without increasing the amount you have to eat.
“Adding ingredients such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, ricotta, and nut butters can increase the energy and/or protein content of each mouthful of food without adding too much additional volume.”
Eat to reduce fatigue
Post-chemotherapy fatigue can be debilitating. Atkins recommends people going through chemo eat quality proteins at each meal and opt for low-GI carbohydrates to prevent or lessen the severity of fatigue.
Avoid eating processed foods as “this can result in a spike and then a rapid fall of your blood sugar levels, which could make you feel tired and flat. That will just make you feel worse," she says.
Eat for your culture
“You need to eat for health. But while you are going through chemotherapy, you can continue to eat according to your culture.”
Atkins advises people to look at the low-GI, high-protein foods in their cultural cuisine. Recipes can also be adapted to maximise nutritional content.
“We often provide clients with a list of culturally sensitive foods that their family members can prepare for them.”
“We often provide clients with a list of culturally sensitive foods that their family members can prepare for them. For example, if you like Indian food, you can have Basmati rice with curry. Have half a slice of naan bread rather than a full piece, and balance that with a protein source and vegetables in a meal."
Getting support with meal preparation can also remove the physical and mental challenge of cooking that a person going through chemotherapy faces.
“If you want to help out and know what to cook, it can make people on both sides of that transaction feel better about it.”
The information in the article above is general only. To find out more or get specific health advice relevant to your situation, please see an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and/or an APD specialising in oncology.