Alberta Cancer Foundation

Expert Advice on Managing Chemotherapy Side-Effects Through Diet

Illustration by Jennifer Madole

Chemotherapy treatment can be accompanied by nausea. Thankfully, there are steps that can be taken to avoid or lessen the impacts of this unpleasant side effect. Dr. Catherine Field, a professor of nutrition at the University of Alberta, offers practical advice on how and what to eat to successfully manage nausea while providing your body with the nutrition it needs during treatment.

Q: Why does chemotherapy cause nausea?

It’s commonly believed that the nausea is actually caused by a response in the brain, a response to having toxic chemicals in your blood, prompting the brain to stop you from eating anything more. In addition, the taste buds in the mouth are cells that turn over very quickly, and that makes them very sensitive to chemotherapy — they are either altered or destroyed. Because of this, foods often taste bitter, and a bitter taste can induce nausea. Some chemotherapies can also damage the lining of the throat and the stomach, and that also induces nausea.

Q: Are there certain foods people should avoid entirely during chemotherapy?

It’s very personal. If a certain food triggers nausea, then you should avoid it. Eating your favourite food when you’re feeling nauseous can actually trigger an aversion reaction. So, if you really love blueberries, then don’t eat blueberries when you are nauseous. You may never want to eat them again, and even the sight of them could bring on nausea later on.

Q: What are some foods that people undergoing chemotherapy tend to have an aversion to?

Many people undergoing chemotherapy have a really hard time eating red meat. They find the flavour to be tinny. We actually tell people who are having that problem not to use metal utensils — use plastic to avoid that extra tin flavour that causes more nausea. Sometimes using strong-tasting sauces can also help mask this change and enable one to enjoy eating red meats.

Q: What can you do if you have a very low appetite due to nausea?

Large amounts of food can increase nausea, so eat small, frequent meals instead of three meals a day. The temperature of food can be quite important, too. Hot foods with strong odours tend
to aggravate nausea, so eat food at room temperature or cold to avoid those odours. There are also meal replacements out there that people can take, which are an easy way to get calories
and protein.

Q: Any tips for stimulating the appetite?

Chemotherapy can cause either a sore mouth or a dry mouth. If the mouth is really dry, it’s sometimes hard to eat without the saliva moving. Things that are sour stimulate saliva, like lemonade and sour candies.

Q: Specifically, what can you do to lessen nausea as it is happening?

Sitting up for about an hour after you’ve eaten can help. Rinsing your mouth after you eat also helps because then you don’t have lingering flavours. Drink beverages between meals instead of with a meal, and make sure you drink cool or chilled beverages and sip them through a straw. If nausea is really severe, talk to your doctor, as there are some anti-nausea drugs that could be prescribed to you.

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