What to Eat When You Have Gastrointestinal Cancer

Maintaining a healthy diet is important during all stages of cancer treatment. But, for some gastrointestinal (GI) cancer patients, keeping up with a nutritious and well-rounded diet can be especially difficult.

Yogurt can help with digestive issues, such as XX. Try using it in a healthy fruit parfait.
Yogurt can help with digestion. Try using it in a healthy fruit parfait like the one pictured above.

During treatment, patients with GI cancer may struggle with digestive problems, like constipation and diarrhea, along with the common side effects of treatment, like nausea and vomiting. Emily Biever, MS, RD, LDN, a nutritionist with Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, recommends staying hydrated to help keep these symptoms in check.

“GI patients often come in needing IV hydration, but this can be reduced by keeping up with fluids and drinking plenty of water throughout the day,” Biever says. “GI patients should aim to get eight cups of water a day, and more if they experience diarrhea and vomiting.”

Chewing on fresh ginger can also be a natural remedy for nausea.

Biever also says some GI patients may benefit from probiotics in foods like yogurt and kefir, a fermented milk product, which can aid in bowel regularity. In some cases, patients may benefit from probiotics in more potent doses, something a dietitian would help determine.

Eating small meals throughout the day can also help with side effects. “Smaller amounts going in the gastrointestinal track at one time means less work and less potential irritation for patients,” Biever says. For example, a small meal could be half of an English muffin with peanut butter and sliced banana with a small glass of soy milk.

Although GI cancer patients may feel like they need to cut out certain foods, like sugar and sweets, the key is finding moderation in a healthy lifestyle that is comfortable for patients, Biever says. The best diet is a colorful, plant-based diet that includes healthy fats like avocado and olive oil, and lean protein like fish, chicken, or tofu. However, if a GI patient is experiencing diarrhea, they should limit fiber intake and try to eat more protein.

Overall, Biever stresses integrative nutrition, which looks at “all pieces of the pie.” This means not only maintaining a healthy diet, but also keeping up with physical activity, reducing stress and considering integrative therapies like acupuncture or reiki.

Learn more about nutrition for GI cancer in this presentation from Biever.

For more healthy recipes, visit our Health Library or check out our Ask the Nutritionist app

Read more about nutrition services at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.