Eating Well

A well-balanced, nutritional diet supports you in treatment and recovery. Before considering making any nutritional changes, we suggest you consult your treating medical team.

Why Good Nutrition is So Important

Cancer itself and the ensuing treatment places extra demands on your body, so it’s important to understand how nutrition and exercise can help during treatment, recovery and beyond.

Eating a well-balanced diet can help you to maintain a healthy weight, sustain muscle strength and boost your energy levels – all of which contribute to your quality of life. Good nutrition can also assist with enhancing your mental health, managing the side effects of treatment, wound healing and rebuilding damaged tissues (especially after surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other treatment), improving your body’s immune system and reducing the risk of cancer recurring.


Tips for Eating Well During Cancer Treatment

Eating Well during treatment looks different for everybody, so an individualised approach is vital. It’s important to understand that different treatments will have different side effects, and everyone responds differently.

You may need more energy during treatment or recovery. Be sure to consume enough calories to maintain your weight and enough protein to maintain your muscle, immune function, energy levels and treatment tolerance. 

You may need to adapt what you eat to cope with your body’s changing needs and to prevent weight loss, which often happens due to loss of appetite. If you are concerned about weight loss or weight gain, or if you have a reduced appetite, please consult with your medical team, who can assist you and may refer you to an oncology dietician.

For Loss of Appetite
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals or snacks – “eat the clock” i.e., every 2-3 hours, rather than waiting for your body to tell you it’s time to eat at larger meal
  • Consume a high energy, high protein diet – Meat, fish, chicken, eggs, dairy products, nuts and seeds, beans, tofu
  • Try nourishing drinks, i.e., milk-based smoothies or products such as Sustagen
  • Doing light activity, such as taking a walk, can help improve your appetite and mood, aid digestion, prevent constipation and reduce fatigue 
To Manage Nausea
  • Talk to your treating medical team, ask about medications that can help (must be taken 30 mins before eating)
  • Try not to skip meals, an empty stomach can make nausea worse
  • Choose dry, salty foods or cold, bland foods 
  • Brush your teeth and use mouthwash regularly
  • Try ginger lollies, dry ginger ale, flat lemonade and peppermint tea, which can help
Tips for Managing Taste Changes

During treatment, taste changes are a very common side effect. Patients often report that “everything tastes like cardboard”. Try adding extra sauces, salt, spices and gravies to boost the flavour of your meals.

You may also experience taste sensitivity. Try opting for bland/simple foods to counteract the very sweet or very salty taste. Maintaining good oral hygiene is also important, so keep up with regular brushing and use a mouthwash daily.

Another side effect is experiencing a metallic taste. Try using disposable/non-metal cutlery to counteract this. Also maintain good oral hygiene with regular brushing and use a mouthwash daily. 

Tips for Managing Bowel Changes

Bowel changes can be caused by immunotherapy, targeted treatment, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, antibiotics, pain medication, infections or viruses and stress. Always talk to your treating team about any bowel changes. Patients sometimes blame certain foods, which may not be the case.

Serious side effects can cause extreme bowel issues and need to be addressed immediately with your treating team.

Diarrhoea – Ensure adequate fluid intake to prevent dehydration, small frequent meals and snacks, eat foods high in soluble fibre (oats, white rice, pasta), limit alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners and large amounts of soft drink/cordial/fruit juice. Hydralyte can be helpful. If diarrhoea is an issue, please consult your treating medical team urgently.

Constipation – Increase fluid intake – dehydration can cause/worsen constipation, eat foods high in fibre (oats, wholegrains, fruits and vegetables – kiwi fruit works well), do gentle movement to stimulate muscles which help bowel contract. If constipation is an issue, please consult your treating medical team urgently.

Oral Health Tips

See your dentist regularly and let them know which treatment you’re undergoing. Your dental professional can advise you on caring for your teeth and mouth during and after treatment.

If you’re having radiotherapy to the head or neck, it’s important to have your teeth checked, because radiation can affect your teeth and gums.

Immunotherapy and chemotherapy can cause oral health issues, especially in those who already have issues with their mouth, teeth or gums.

Tips for Eating Well After Cancer Treatment

It’s important that you try to maintain your weight, which will assist your recovery. 

Consult with your treatment team to get up-to-date and evidence-based information and to identify ways to assist you in your recovery. The following are recommended suggestions that may assist you.

  • Eat a variety of foods from the five food groups – learn more
  • Fluids are vital – ensure you drink plenty of water
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Limit the consumption of saturated fats
  • Include some physical activity to rebuild your muscle mass and recover from the side effects of your treatment

Learn more about Eating Well in survivorship.

Tips for Eating Well in Recovery

  • Once you recover from any side effects of treatment, it’s important to continue your healthy eating plan
  • Focus on maintaining healthy body weight while being physically active to lower the risk of cancer recurring
  • Consult your doctor for regular check ups

Learn more about Living Well After Cancer.

Success Tips for Post-treatment Weight Loss
  • Focus on the foods you CAN include in your healthy diet, rather than on eliminating foods
  • Include a variety of nutritious foods in your daily diet
  • Eat the rainbow for a healthy balance of vitamins and minerals – colourful fruits and vegetables, foods high in fibre such as wholegrain cereals and bread, beans, chickpeas, lentils and nuts, unsweetened yoghurt, olive oil and fish. 
  • Eat lean red meat no more than 3-4 days a week and avoid processed meats
  • Restrictive diets are the single biggest predictor of disordered eating
  • Try grocery shopping online to avoid buying unhealthy food on a whim
  • Take the focus off the number on the scales and focus on non-weight related goals 

Diets or Supplements

Talk to your GP, pharmacist or dietitian before taking a supplement or starting a diet.

  • Some diets or supplements may interact negatively with your treatment at a time when you need maximum nutrition.
  • Restrictive diets can put you at risk of malnutrition
  • Ensure the diet can be done safely without interfering with your treatment
  • High dose antioxidants can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy – talk to your health professional first

Nutrition and Cancer Myths

Myth 1: "Sugar feeds cancer"

All cells use glucose as their primary source of fuel before other forms of energy. Our bodies produce glucose on their own, even if we don’t eat sugar! In the absence of glucose, cancer cells will go to the next fuel source – protein and fats. Eliminating all dietary sugars and carbs can lead to lack of fuel for our bodies, which gives us energy, especially when going through treatment.

Myth 2: Cancer thrives in an acidic environment, "alkaline" diets can reduce cancer growth

Eating acidic or alkaline foods will not alter the pH of your blood or body. The body tightly controls its pH, regardless of diet. If you could change the pH of your blood, your healthy cells would also not survive. There have been no studies to support an alkaline diet.

Myth 3: Intermittent fasting can prevent cancer and help with cancer recovery

Fasting puts you at high risk of not getting enough nutrition at a time when your body needs plenty of calories, protein, vitamins and minerals to help cope with treatment.

Maintaining your weight through treatment is an important factor in keeping you well. For cancer prevention, it’s recommended to follow a well-balanced diet, including food from all 5 food groups, combined with regular movement.

Where to Find Help 

What works for you may not work for others – individualised care is important. A qualified dietitian can assist with your nutritional needs.

If you need assistance with your diet, ask your GP for a referral to a dietitian who can help with managing your diet. Dietitians must complete a university degree and will have the letters APD after their name. You can also contact the Dietitians Association of Australia and go to ‘Find a Dietitian’ on their website.

Be wary of advice offered on social media. Look closely at the person’s credentials – is their qualification from a well-known university or are they trying to sell you something?

Useful Resources

Reference: Eating Well webinar, 12 October 2021, presented by Megan Sanders, APD – Clinical Oncology Dietitian

Disclaimer: This information is general advice and does not consider your objectives, health situation or needs. Specific nutritional advice must be tailored to the individual. This information will give you a general idea of the options available to you, however, you’ll need to determine what is appropriate for you.

“I have learnt a lot in such a short 6 months… my motto is “I can control my emotions, but I can’t control outcomes. “I have implanted that thought into my brain and it has really helped not to be scared and worry about what if’s? Outcomes will be outcomes and me worrying about outcomes is not going to change what may or may not happen.”
Shane Wood
MPA Patient Story - Shane Wood