Adult Nutrition and Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

During cancer treatment, patients may have to deal with side effects that change the willingness or ability to eat. Report any side effects to a health care provider right away.

Below are some common side effects and tips for coping with them.

  • For loss of appetite:
    • Eat smaller and more frequent meals, rather than larger meals.
    • Always have a snack on hand.
    • Ask a health care provider about powdered or liquid meal replacements.
    • Keep hydrated with fluids.
    • Try milk or soup for protein and nutrients.
    • Snack before bed.
    • Make frozen fruit "smoothies," yogurt shakes, or milkshakes, or eat popsicles.
    • Have a larger meal whenever possible.
    • Exercise may stimulate appetite (talk with a health care provider first).
    • Beer or wine may increase appetite (talk with a health care provider first).
    • Don't fill up on fluids during meals.
  • For constipation:
    • Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
    • Ask a health care provider about adding fiber to the diet.
    • Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
    • Daily exercise may help (talk with a health care provider first).
  • For diarrhea:
    • Replenish lost body fluids, sodium, and potassium with broth, fruit, or vegetable juices, fruit popsicles, or soups.
    • Instead of eating large meals, try smaller meals more frequently through the day.
    • Avoid fried or fatty foods, raw vegetables, fruit skin, beans, and corn.
    • Avoid caffeine (typically in coffee, chocolate, and soft drinks).
    • For grains, try white rice, white bread, noodles, or cream of wheat.
    • For dairy, try yogurt or cottage cheese.
    • For protein, try eggs, smooth peanut butter, skinless poultry, lean beef, or broiled fish.
  • For nausea:
    • Try foods such as toast, crackers, and pretzels.
    • Avoid greasy, spicy, and fried foods.
    • Eat smaller food portions more frequently.
    • Eat slowly.
    • Eat before getting hungry—hunger can induce nausea.
    • Get plenty of fresh air and avoid strong cooking odors.
    • Ask a health care provider about other ways to reduce nausea, such as acupressure wristbands or special medications.
  • For a sore mouth or throat, or difficulty swallowing:
    • Try milkshakes, or ask a health care provider about liquid meal replacements.
    • Eat soft, low-acid fruits such as bananas, applesauce, peaches, and watermelon.
    • Try cottage cheese, yogurt, custard, or pudding.
    • Try "soft" foods such as macaroni & cheese, mashed potatoes, noodles, and oatmeal.
    • For protein, puree meats in a blender, or cook fried or scrambled eggs.
    • Avoid citrus fruits, tomato sauce, salty or spicy foods, and coarse foods such as granola.
    • Wait until food cools before eating it.
    • Ask a health care provider about medicine to ease mouth and throat pain.
    • Ask a dentist for other tips to ease mouth pain.
  • For dry mouth:
    • Keep a water bottle handy to sip from.
    • Hard candy, popsicles, chewing gum, and tart drinks may increase saliva.
    • Puree food to make it easier to swallow.
    • Use lip balm to keep lips from chapping.
    • Add sauces, salad dressings, and gravies to make food easier to swallow.
    • Ask a health care provider or dentist about "artificial saliva" products.
  • For changes in how food tastes and smells, try these suggestions:
    • Eat appealing foods.
    • If beef has a bitter or metallic taste, try chicken or mild tasting fish.
    • Marinate beef in sweet fruit juice, sweet wine, or Italian dressing.
    • Season food with citrus, oregano, or bacon to enhance the flavor.
    • If cooking smells are bothersome, try cooking outside, using an exhaust fan, or keeping a window open.

After cancer treatment ends, most side effects go away. However, patients who have lost a lot of weight may take a while to get back to a healthy weight. Follow the advice of a health care provider or dietician about getting back to a healthy weight.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 01 Mar 2007

Last Modified: 03 Nov 2014