Nutrition Tips to Manage Treatment Side Effects

October 24 / 2018

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Nutrition plays an important role each step of the cancer journey. Good nutrition can help you maintain your body weight, decrease the risk of infection, improve your strength and energy, and assist your body in healing. Everyone’s journey is unique and so are the symptoms they experience. Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dry mouth, bloating, and bowel issues are just some of the common side effects that people who are living with cancer experience as a result of treatment or from the cancer itself.

Here are some general nutrition tips on how to manage some common side effects.


Decreased Appetite and Weight Loss

During cancer treatment, a decrease in appetite and weight loss are common. With nutrition playing a vital role in your recovery, it is important to make every mouthful count with high energy and high protein foods. Protein helps to maintain lean muscle mass, repair body tissue and sustain a healthy immune system, whereas calories provide energy to your body and can help combat fatigue. Below are some high calorie, high protein snack and meal ideas.

High calorie, high protein snack and meal ideas

  • Omelet with cheese and veggies
  • High-fat Greek yogurt with fruit and granola
  • Cream soup made with milk and added protein source (legumes, meat, etc.)
  • Chili topped with avocado and sour cream
  • Oatmeal made with cow’s or soymilk topped with nuts, seeds and dried fruit
  • Cheese or natural peanut butter with apple, celery or crackers
  • Trail mix
  • For more personalized meal and snack ideas, register for a One-to-one Nutrition Coaching consultation today. 

General tips

  • If big meals are unappealing, try eating 5-6 small meals a day or snack every 2 hours.
  • Carry snacks with you on the go, whether you are out for an appointment or running errands.
  • Double the portion of added fats and oils in meals.
  • Take a break from eating and go for a walk.
  • Make mealtime more enjoyable by eating with friends or family.


Nausea and Vomiting

  •  Drink liquids 30 minutes before or after eating
  • Rinse your mouth with a mixture of ¼ tsp salt and 1 cup of water before and after snacks or meals
  • Eat small, frequent meals to keep solid food in your stomach
  • Avoid strong smelling and overly spicy foods
  • Keep a journal to track which foods trigger nausea
  • Choose cold or room temperature foods over hot foods
  • Eat in a comfortable environment with loose fitting clothing


Taste Change

Many people experience taste change during cancer treatment. This can be due to radiation therapy, medication or other reasons. A temporary change in taste can lower your appetite or lead to food aversions. Try the following tips to cope with taste change:

  • Choose foods with strong flavours or add powerful spices, marinades, or sauces to mask the unpleasant taste.
  • Experiment with different food flavours (salty, sweet, sour) to see which is best tolerated.
  • Use a mouth rinse (¼ tsp baking soda mixed in 1 cup water) before and after meals or snacks.
  • If food tastes metallic, use plastic utensils instead of metal ones, choose cool or room temperature foods and try cinnamon, lemon or mint favoured gums or candies to help mask the taste.
  • Beef is prone to a metallic taste, so try to replace it with other sources of protein such as eggs, legumes, chicken, tofu or dairy products.
  • If fluids taste too sweet, dilute them with water, soda water or ice to decrease the sweetness.
  • Avoid any foods that taste unpleasant in the moment, but retry the food after a 2-week period to see if the taste has changed.


Dry Mouth

Radiation therapy to the head and neck area can increase the thickness and reduce the amount of saliva in your mouth. This can cause your mouth to feel temporarily dry. If you are experiencing this, try some of these strategies:

  • Rinse your mouth 4-6 times a day with one of the following rinses:
    • 1) ¼ tsp baking soda and 1 cup water
    • 2) 1 tsp of salt, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 cup of water
    • 3) 1 cup soda water
  • Bring a small spray bottle or bottle of water with you wherever you go to help keep your mouth moist.
  • Limit tea, coffee, alcohol and mouthwashes with alcohol, as they can further dry up your mouth.
  • Chew sugar free gum or mints to stimulate saliva production.
  • Suck on ice chips to moisten your mouth.
  • Avoid dry foods such as bread, toast or crackers and add sauces and gravies to your food to moisten them.


Bowel Issues

Diarrhea and constipation are both common side effects of treatment. However, if you have frequent diarrhea for more than 2 days or have less than one bowel movement every 3 days, you should contact your medical oncology team. Otherwise, here are some general nutrition tips to help manage diarrhea and constipation:


  • Drink 8-12 cups of fluid each day to prevent dehydration. Avoid drinking very sugary drinks and large amounts at once as these can worsen symptoms. Try water, plain broth, decaf coffee and tea. Limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Eat small, frequent meals and snacks, every 2-3 hours.
  • Increase intake of soluble fibre, as this type of fibre absorbs fluids in your digestive system and can help relieve diarrhea. Foods high in soluble fibre include oatmeal or oat bran, applesauce, bananas and canned peaches and pears. Beans are high in soluble fibre but can cause gas and possibly worsen symptoms.
  • Limit intake of insoluble fibre such as dried fruits, raw vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes and corn. Enjoy fruits and vegetables peeled and well cooked.
  • Once the diarrhea is resolved, slowly reincorporate foods.


  • Drink a minimum of 8 cups of fluid per day to help keep stool soft. Warm or hot liquids can help with having a bowel movement.
  • Try natural laxatives such as prunes, apples, peaches and pear nectars or juices.
  • Increase your intake of high-fibre foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, high-fibre cereals (>5 grams/serving), nuts, seeds and legumes to help soften the stool. Don’t forget to match your fibre intake with fluids to prevent gas or bloating.
  • Add oat bran, wheat bran or ground flax seeds into hot cereal, smoothies or muffin batter to increase your fibre intake.
  • Try going for a walk after meals.

Stay grounded,



Written in collaboration with nutrition volunteer, Samantha Nesrallah, RD, MPH