What Should I Eat During Cancer Treatment?

When going through cancer treatment, deciding what to eat can be confusing. For patients with cancer and particularly those undergoing chemotherapy, eating healthy can be key to managing energy levels, immune function, and overall health. It is important to eat a well balanced diet and follow the healthy eating plate proposed by Harvard School of Public Health and endorsed by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

frittata, rosemary, vegetables, eggs, nutrition, recipes
Eggs, which are featured in this Rosemary and Vegetable Frittata, are a good source of protein and can support immune function and energy.

“Half of your plate should be filled with vegetables (and fruits), a quarter with lean protein, and a quarter with whole grains, along with plenty of water and a small source of healthy fats,” says Dana-Farber senior clinical nutritionist Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO. Following these guidelines can help to boost energy during treatment, prevent unwanted weight gain, and manage symptoms that may come with treatment, including bowel changes.

  • The Ask the Nutritionist app, a free app from Dana-Farber Nutrition, offers recipes and meal planning ideas to help manage a range of side effects of chemotherapy, from nausea to mouth sores.

To prevent weight and muscle loss during chemotherapy, Kennedy recommends eating smaller, more frequent meals that are high in calories, nutrients and protein rather than three large meals a day. Eating protein is also important for patients undergoing chemotherapy to support immune function and energy. Good sources of protein include hummus, nuts, beans, fish, lean meats, and eggs.

For patients who have undergone a stem cell transplant, there are special food guidelines to follow for the first 100 days post-transplant to help prevent infection. A “liberalized low bacteria diet” helps patients avoid infection posed by certain foods or preparation techniques. Patients following this diet should avoid food that is beyond its expiration date, wash hands, surfaces, and cans of food thoroughly before use with hot water and soap, and ensure foods such as eggs and meat are cooked thoroughly to the appropriate internal temperature. It is also important to avoid thin-skinned raw vegetables and fruits, as well as salad bars and restaurant foods, which are all more likely to carry harmful bacteria. Thick-skinned fruits such as banana and melon are OK to eat raw, but wash well before cutting or peeling.

Some cancer specialists are investigating a new method of vegetable growing called hydroponics. This method, which grows vegetables such as lettuce in a liquid nutrient solution, may allow stem cell transplant patients to safely consume raw vegetables. However, more research is needed about this new method of growing. “We don’t have enough knowledge about if the environment these are grown in would be safe for this population,” says Kennedy.

In addition, patients should not leave perishable items at room temperature for more than two hours. For food containing eggs, cream, or mayonnaise, perishable food should be at room temperature for no more than one hour. It is also important to avoid unpasteurized milks, juices, and ciders, as bacteria are not killed in the process of making these items. Some lesser known foods to avoid include raw honey, uncooked, dried spices and bakery items.

For more information on diet guidelines during cancer, chemotherapy treatment, bone marrow transplants, and stem cell transplants, visit Dana-Farber’s nutrition page.

Which foods should patients avoid during treatment? Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, discusses more in the video below: