Ask the Expert: Food for Thought

Question: Nutrition: What helps and what doesn’t during treatment

Proper nutrition is important for everyone to help maintain health and well-being. During oncology treatments, however, nutritional requirements increase significantly. At the same time, side effects from treatment can make it difficult to meet these new or increased needs.

Possible side effects from treatments:

  • Chemotherapy can cause loss of appetite, nausea/vomiting, taste changes and infection complications
  • Radiation can cause changes in appetite, taste changes, and decrease tolerance to food smells
  • Steroids can lead to yeast infections that can cause mouth pain and difficulty swallowing. Another side effect can be elevated blood sugars and unwanted weight gain

General guidelines for managing nutrition-related side effects:

  1. If you’re experiencing loss of appetite, make every bite count. Choose high calorie, high protein foods and liquids, and don’t fill up on water or low calorie foods.

    Try to eat at regular intervals, whether you feel hungry or not and eat when your appetite is at its best (usually in the morning). Do not miss meals. If you find that you’re losing weight, add extra fats such as butter, cream or sauces to your food. You may consider adding nutritional supplements such as Ensure or Boost to your meal plan.
  2. If nausea/vomiting are a problem, try small frequent meals; avoid fatty or spicy foods, or foods with a strong odour. Cold foods may be more appealing than hot – try cheese, eggs, crackers and non-acidic juices.

    Avoid eating 1-2 hours before treatment and do not eat your favourite food when nauseous (it may stop being your favourite food).
  3. If you’re having taste changes, it may help to eat food at room temperature or chilled. You may have to adjust seasoning, e.g. If food tastes salty, add sugar; if it tastes too sweet, add salt. Use plastic utensils to avoid metallic taste, and clean your mouth before and after meals.
  4. For a sore mouth, avoid foods that require a lot of chewing or are hard to swallow. It may be helpful to add sauces or gravies to moisten food, or mince the food itself. Consume small high calorie/high protein soft meals as well as nutritional supplements or homemade milkshakes to maintain adequate intake. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, acidic foods and juices, and spicy foods at this time. It may also help to drink from a straw.

Everyone’s experience will be different and hopefully the above tips are useful. Remember to consult the Registered Dietitian who is part of your health care team if you continue to have difficulty eating and require more individualized assistance.

 You can download this information as a Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada Information Sheet (pdf).
Find more information from other sources including website and books in the Northey Family Library Nutrition section.
A special thank you to Helen Hajgato, RD, Outpatient Dietitian, Royal Victoria Hospital (Barrie), Nutrition Services and was a Speaker at the 2010 Brain Tumour Education Seminar (Barrie) for offering her time to provide this important information. 

Return to Information Sheets here.

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