Cancer
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7 Ways to Enjoy Eating Again Despite Chemo

Eat the foods you love to build your strength and help fight cancer.

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By Rose Hayes

 

During chemotherapy, meals should be your time-out from everything medical—a chance to rest, build your strength and enjoy the company of loved ones. Eating healthy, satisfying foods every day also can help you to:

  • Stay strong, both mentally and physically
  • Tolerate your treatments
  • Protect your good cells against damage from chemo
  • Fight cancer by boosting your immune system and building your energy stores

 

However, chemo side effects like mouth sores and nausea can create stress, pain and keep you from getting the nutrients you need. Here are 7 expert-approved tips to help you beat the side effects and enjoy your food once again.

Nutritious foods can come in small packages

2 / 8 Nutritious foods can come in small packages

“Large meals can feel overwhelming when you have a poor appetite—a big plate might make you not want to eat anything, even though you could probably take a few bites. If a full meal is too much at once, try small, frequent snacks every few hours,” says Kelly Kugler, RD a registered dietitian at Holy Cross Hospital’s Michael and Dianne Bienes Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

 

The key is to bulk up your snacks with extra protein and calories to really make them count:

  • Spread peanut butter or cottage cheese onto fruit
  • Scoop sour cream or parmesan cheese onto savory foods like veggies and soups
  • Add whey protein to smoothies, oatmeal and yogurt 
Keep quick-fix meals on hand

3 / 8 Keep quick-fix meals on hand

When you have unpredictable side effects like nausea or a poor appetite, you never know when hunger will strike. Since windows of opportunity may not last long, it helps to have ready-made foods around.

 

“Store things that you can grab-and-go like hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, snack bars, yogurt or cottage cheese. Fast, high-calorie snacks can keep you from missing the chance to eat because you won’t have to spend time cooking something,” explains Ms. Kugler.

 

Also consider prepping meals ahead of time:

  • Make a hearty soup or stew, then freeze it in single-serving containers
  • Keep chopped meat, tuna or egg salad in the fridge for easy sandwich or salad toppings
Soothe and protect your tender mouth

4 / 8 Soothe and protect your tender mouth

Mouth sores from chemo can make you dread even your most favorite meals. “To lessen the pain, eat foods at room temperature, instead of very hot or cold,” says Kugler. “Using a straw to direct drinks and broths away from open sores can help too.”

 

Stay away from rough, dry foods like crackers and spicy, acidic foods like salsa, which can irritate sores. Instead, cream of wheat, pasta and yogurt can comfort your mouth—just check the yogurt ingredients for harsh citric acid before digging in.

 

Finally, rinse with this soothing, homemade mouthwash as needed for relief and freshness:

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
Drink your way to wellness

5 / 8 Drink your way to wellness

Nutrient-rich beverages can help you get the calories and protein you need when solid foods just aren’t possible. Commercial supplement beverages are great, but there are also delicious recipes you can make at home, says Kugler.

 

The American Cancer Society offers a list of satisfying shake recipes in their Nutrition for the Person with Cancer During Treatment Guide, available on their website.

 

Whether you’re blending an indulgent shake or pureeing veggies for a nutrition-packed soup, give it a protein boost with a fortified milk base:

  • 4 cups milk
  • 1 cup powdered, fortified milk

Blend and chill in the refrigerator for 6 hours. Enjoy as a drink or add to recipes.

When you’re too tired to even lift a fork

6 / 8 When you’re too tired to even lift a fork

Feeling completely exhausted all the time is a common side effect of chemo. It also can signal a change in one of your blood cell counts like your number of red blood cells. So tell your doctor if you feel too tired to eat or complete regular, everyday activities.

 

It’s important to rest up, but sleeping all day can make you forget about food, plus it can reverse your sleep cycle, making it harder to fall asleep when you actually want to. Try taking 3 to 4 naps during the day, but wake up for snacks, drinks and some light activity between sleep sessions.

Don’t let dehydration sneak up on you

7 / 8 Don’t let dehydration sneak up on you

Your exhaustion during chemo will feel worse if you’re dehydrated. But nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can keep you from getting—or keeping down—the fluids you need. Drink 1 glass of liquid after each episode of diarrhea and sip clear liquids about 30 minutes after vomiting stops. That can include:

  • Broth, which will help replace lost sodium
  • Fruit juice or nectar, which can replenish potassium and sugar

Also, try using ginger to both hydrate and help settle your stomach at the same time. Boil it for tea or chop and add it to club soda for fresh ginger ale, suggests Kugler.

 

Staying hydrated fights constipation too. Warm prune juice can really get things moving.

Small workouts for a big appetite

8 / 8 Small workouts for a big appetite

It might come as a surprise, but physical activity can actually help you feel less tired and increase your appetite. Adding some exercise to your day, even if you start small, also can:

  • Keep your bowels moving regularly
  • Fight nausea
  • Reduce stress and depression

If you haven’t been feeling up to exercising, start with just five or ten minutes of walking at a time. Then, add a few additional minutes each time you go for a stroll.

 

“For a lot of people, exercise might not seem possible, but even if you could just do a little walk or some seated exercises, it can actually help you work up an appetite,” says Kugler.