Nutrition: eating during chemo

Tuesday 08 May 2018

This month I want to look at eating once chemotherapy has started.

Chemotherapy in itself is a very worrying and emotional time for most people, with many concerns about the treatment and how it is going to affect them. All very understandable and natural concerns. I was spurred into looking at eating through chemotherapy because recently I have had several visitors who are in this position and finding eating quite difficult. Of course, this does not happen to everyone who starts chemotherapy because it is practically impossible to know how chemotherapy will affect the individual. Some escape with a little tiredness and for some it becomes a battle knowing what and how to eat.

My experience tells me that there are 3 stages to eating during treatment:

Stage 1 - actually getting over the treatment and the 3 or 4 days that follow
Stage 2 - feeling a little better  
Stage 3 - back to full steam.

I want to take each stage and make some suggestions about what to eat to keep the body as nourished and energised as possible.

These are of course only suggestions that may help.

Stage 1. Actually getting over the treatment.
You are effectively convalescing whilst you recover from the treatment so soft easy to digest food should be considered here.

  • Chicken broth. So nourishing and rich in nutrients that will support good digestion and healing. It is a very old fashioned remedy that our grandmothers used and the trend has now become very popular again.
  • Chicken/lentil casserole which includes slow cooked vegetables. This sort of food is so easy to digest and because you eat the liquid that the food has been cooked in no nourishment is lost. Try, onion, garlic, carrots, butternut squash and courgettes cooked in vegetable or chicken stock. Have small portions with some mashed sweet or white potato.
  • Any smooth soup, so easy to eat and nourishing. Try chicken or lentil soup or well blended mushroom soup made with coconut milk and stock. Remember that mushrooms and coconut have been shown to support the immune system. 
  • A fish parcel cooked with some mushroom and tomatoes. Simply wrap a portion of fish in foil with the vegetables thinly sliced with a little seasoning and placed on the fish. Bake this for about 20 mins and serve. The fish is light and easy to digest and the addition of the vegetables adds vitamins and minerals to make it more nourishing.
  • Stewed fruit like apple with coconut cream or yogurt. This is comforting and calorie dense from the coconut. Because of the structure of the fat in coconut (medium chain fatty acids) the fat is converted in the body straight into energy rather than being stored and used later. This makes it ideal to help sustain energy.
  • A fruit smoothie made with coconut milk, berry fruits, a banana and some protein powder. You can buy pea protein powder or rice protein powder from most large supermarkets or health shops. One scoop added to a smoothie will add the essential protein. The powder dissolves, has no flavour, and is light to digest
  • You notice that I have included protein with all of my suggestions because protein is so important for repair of tissues and for supporting the immune system.
  • Try to draw on friends and family to help with food preparation to save you the worry.

Stage 2. Feeling a little better. As you start to feel a little better increase your range of foods.

  • Include fresh vegetables as a juice or steamed or oven roasted to meals to add essential vitamins and minerals for cell health and immune support. Vegetables are also rich in compounds that support good liver detoxification.
  • Add a few high calorie treats like a chocolate and beet brownie (recipe below). This is calorie dense, has a low glycaemic load and will freeze.

3. Back to normal. This is when you try and adopt healthy eating that has been shown to be hugely beneficial for those fighting cancer.

  • There is a great deal of evidence from observational studies and work done in the lab that to eat as well as you can really does help you to rebuild your body during and after any treatment for cancer. Include plenty of vegetables, some protein, fruit, complex carbohydrates and essential fats.
  • Try to avoid sweet sugary foods, processed foods and junk. I do appreciate that we live in the real world and not to have the odd treat seems inhuman but as long as it is occasional and not the norm it should not have any detrimental effects.

I wrote a blog called The Balanced Plate which explains clearly the recommendations for eating well. The information comes from a consensus of opinion and research about food and cancer. You might like to have a read.

Chocolate Beet Brownies

3 oz/75g of coconut oil

9 oz dark chocolate

3 tbsp of xylitol

4 eggs

4 oz/200g of ground almonds

6 oz cooked beetroot roughly chopped

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp baking powder

30z/75g of broken walnuts


  • Preheat the oven gas 5/elec 150’C. grease and line a 12x8 tin with parchment paper.
  • Put the chocolate, coconut oil and xylitol in a pan and melt gently over a low heat till the chocolate has just melted. Take off the heat.
  • In a processor or blender blend the eggs and beetroot till smooth.
  • In a bowl add the ground almonds cinnamon and baking powder. Add the egg mix and the chocolate mix and beat well. Stir in the walnuts and pour into the tin.
  • Bake 20-25 mins. Allow to cool in the tin.


Blog originally written by Caroline - October 2016 - links updated March 2021

Get cancer support near you

To find your nearest Maggie's centre, enter your postcode or town below.

Sign up for our newsletter

Stay up to date with our news and fundraising by signing up for our newsletter.

Sign up