I met my friend Rebekah when she was in the middle of treatment for breast cancer. She had three small children at the time, and getting meals together when she was sick was a horrible idea. Neighbors and family members pitched in, but she still had to find the energy—and the desire—to eat once the meals were prepared.
I learned one thing from watching Rebekah: food counts, even during cancer treatment. You have to eat well enough to keep your body functioning without overloading it. Macronutrients like protein and carbs are essential, and so are the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that keep immune systems working optimally.
The best foods for chemo patients to eat may vary from household to household, but they seem to be easy to digest, easy on the immune system, and easy to prepare. If you’re interested in learning more, read through this list of the best food for chemo patients. At the end of this article, I’ll share five tips for using food to ease the process of chemo treatment.
A Dozen Comfort-Food Dishes For Chemo Patients
- Dandelion Tea
- Peppermint Tea
- Cabbage Soup
- White Bean Soup
- Ginger Tea
- Cruciferous Vegetables
Oatmeal is a great food to eat during chemo for several reasons. First, it’s easy to make even when you’re not feeling well. A pouch of microwaveable instant oatmeal only takes about two minutes to make, and It has enough fiber to keep your digestive track moving even when you can’t do anything but lay on the couch. You can also opt for steel-cut oats or oatmeal made from rolled oats for an easy meal with plenty of nutrients but a lower glycemic index.
Oatmeal has a nice nutrient profile with antioxidants, healthy fats, and soluble fiber like that found in beans and legumes. One form of soluble fiber in oats, called beta-glucan, causes the oats to digest more slowly than other foods, and it feeds the good bacteria in your gut. This can be calming and soothing when you’re too sick to eat a lot, and it can hold you over from meal to meal on the toughest days.
While dandelion tea is still on the fringe of scientific discovery and research, anecdotal evidence suggests that it has the possibility to cause several types of cancer cells to die, without hurting the healthy cells around them. This process, called apoptosis, seems to be affected by dandelion root extract. The research is promising, but it’s still in its early stages.
Meanwhile, many chemo patients drink dandelion tea to help detoxify the harsh effects that chemotherapy has on their bodies. It’s cleansing and supportive for the liver and kidneys. It’s also easy to make and drink when you’re not feeling well. For people who aren’t into tea, dandelion root can also be taken as a powder, as capsules, or as an extract.
Yogurt contains probiotics that can help keep the gut flora healthy. Greek yogurt also contains extra protein, which can help with energy levels during chemotherapy treatments.
The American Cancer Society suggests keeping small, protein-rich snacks close by that are easy to eat throughout the day. Yogurt is included on the list of suggested foods, and it makes sense: keeping yogurt on hand allows you to eat whenever you want to and get the nutrients you need without overloading your digestive system.
Consider looking for pasteurized yogurt and other pasteurized dairy products. This could help reduce the possibility of microbial infections during treatment.
Crackers are an old standby for any time you have nausea and vomiting, and that includes tummy troubles during chemotherapy. Crackers are a relatively bland food, so they could have fewer triggering effects than strong-flavored or spicy foods. Also, because they’re packaged, there’s no prep time.
Chemo patients can nibble on crackers throughout the day as needed. Plain salted varieties are a good choice, because they have a little flavor without being overwhelming, and they digest easily. The salt from the crackers could also help replace electrolytes lost through vomiting or diarrhea.
One other nice thing about crackers is that they’re easy to make full meals out of. If you feel up to it, you can top crackers with cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, tuna salad, or avocado slices to increase your nutrient intake.
Peppermint tea is an old herbal remedy for nausea and vomiting. It’s been proven to work for even chemotherapy-induced tummy troubles. The health benefits of peppermint come from several compounds in the plant, including one that soothes pain receptors in the intestines. It also has a relaxing effect on the muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.
One study has shown that just smelling peppermint was enough to stop nausea following surgery.
There’s something else you should know about peppermint: besides being soothing for digestive issues, it’s also antimicrobial and antiviral. This could help your immune system when it’s low and help protect you from getting sick from germs during your chemotherapy treatment.
Cabbage soup is an easy, nutrient-laden soup that can help patients on chemotherapy get the nourishment they need. It’s simple to make even without a recipe: just add a package of pre-cut coleslaw to a pot filled with tomato juice, add your other favorite vegetables, season it, and simmer it until you’re ready to eat.
The flavorings are up to you, which is nice because the way things taste can change when you’re undergoing chemotherapy. You can perhaps try different spices and see if any will appeal to your taste. The real benefit comes from the cabbage, which is a cruciferous vegetable containing a compound called sulforaphane. While sulforaphane doesn’t address nausea or vomiting, it does help to fight some cancers, and that could aid your treatment.
Like crackers, toast is an easy, bland food that you can nibble on all day if you’re feeling sick. It also makes an easy meal if you feel up to adding cheese or tuna, and you can toast several types of bread to get the flavors you want.
One interesting thing about toast and bread is that they can act like a sponge in your gastrointestinal tract. If you’re vomiting a lot, eating toast can help soak up some of the digestive juices, and that could be enough to settle an upset stomach.
White Bean Soup
The American Cancer Society suggests making an easy soup out of canned white beans and rotisserie chicken. It’s fast and easy, and it’s a good source of protein. The beans are packed with fiber, which could help your stomach stay full longer so you don’t get nauseated from being hungry.
There’s another perk, too. Some beans, including navy beans and black beans, have been shown to inhibit colon cancer in rats. The fiber in beans has also been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer, too—so depending on the type of cancer you’re fighting, beans might be a great choice to aid your chemo treatments.
Ginger tea, like peppermint tea, is an age-old home remedy for stomach ailments. New research backs the tradition up. One study has shown that women with advanced-stage breast cancer who take ginger with anti-nausea medications immediately after having a chemotherapy treatment are less likely to have nausea than those who don’t.
Ginger has other health benefits that may indirectly help during chemotherapy treatments. It has anti-inflammatory properties, and it contains a substance called gingerol that’s known to help fight cancer.
Ginger has been studied as an alternative cancer remedy for colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. While the research looks promising, more studies are needed to investigate exactly how ginger works, what types of cancer it works on, and how well it works to fight cancer cells.
Cruciferous vegetables contain fiber, potassium, and other nutrients that can help keep bodies functioning well. They also contain compounds called glucosinolates, which break down into other compounds that fight inflammation. This effect helps to lower the risk of cancer.
Cruciferous vegetables also help inactivate carcinogens, and they have both antimicrobial and antiviral properties that could help keep people undergoing chemo from catching germs that would make them sick.
One interesting glucosinolate compound found in cruciferous vegetables is sulforaphane, which could help reduce cancer cell growth. More research is needed to see whether it could be used to inhibit cancer growth in humans who already have cancer, but the overall consensus is that eating cruciferous vegetables could help prevent cancer. In patients undergoing chemotherapy, preventing new cancers from growing or old cancers from spreading could be a top priority.
Eggs are a very balanced food containing fats and proteins that could help chemotherapy patients get the nutrients they need. They are high in vitamins and minerals. Eggs are just one of the many lutein-rich foods which along with zeaxanthin are known to be disease-fighting compounds.
However, because the immune system functions at a lower level during chemotherapy, it’s important to avoid raw or undercooked eggs that may contain microbes. Eggs can be a healthy choice as long as they’re cooked thoroughly.
For more lutein-rich foods see our post here.
Lugaw, a Filipino chicken and rice dish, is a tasty soup that contains chicken, rice, a variety of vegetables, and fresh ginger and garlic. This interesting mixture combines the natural home remedy effect of chicken soup and ginger tea with bland, easy-to-digest rice, making it a great choice for chemo patients suffering from nausea.
The ginger can also help reduce inflammation and fight cancer. Some recipes call for cruciferous vegetables, such as baby Bok Choy, which bump the cancer fighting properties even higher. It’s also great served with toast or crackers.
Five Quick Food Tips For Thriving Through Chemo
Now that you’ve read about the best foods for chemo patients to eat, there are a few tips and tricks to consider as you plan your chemo-therapy meals.
Eat bland foods whenever possible. Foods that have too strong a taste or scent, or that are too spicy, can set off bouts of nausea and vomiting. Foods that are greasy or too fatty could do the same thing. Start off with easy-to-digest foods and add other well-balanced foods on the days when you feel better.
Cook all your food thoroughly. This is important because raw foods can contain microbes, and people undergoing chemotherapy may not be able to fight them off because their immune systems won’t be working optimally. This doesn’t mean you have to cook all your food to mush, though. Lightly steaming vegetables for about three minutes helps keep the nutrients while killing off microbes, so you can get the best nutrition while staying safe.
Eat small meals throughout the day. Keeping your stomach full with small meals can help keep the nausea at bay.
Share your best comfort foods with others. As you go through chemotherapy, you’ll find foods that work better for you than others. Posting your finds in social media groups can inspire others going through chemotherapy, and it could give friends and families ideas of foods they can prepare for you, too.
Use chemo as a healthy eating reset. As you end your chemotherapy treatment, remember to include foods like cruciferous vegetables, healthy teas, and fiber-filled foods in your daily diet. This can help prevent new cancer cells from growing.