Milkshakes, Pudding and Peanut Butter: Your Cancer and Nutrition

Medically Reviewed by:  Kitty Finklea Registered Dietician

“If there can be any good news about Cancer Treatment, this is it: You may be encouraged to add foods to your diet that most of us are cautioned to avoid,” says McLeod Registered Dietitian Kitty Finklea.  “Cancer can change the way your body uses food. And loss of appetite is a common side effect of chemo and radiation therapy.”

In addition to appetite loss, cancer patients may experience nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, changes in taste or smell and an allergy to dairy products (lactose intolerance). Not everyone has the same side effects, even if they are taking the same treatments.

To help if there are eating issues during treatment, here are some tips:

Be sure you’re stocked with healthy foods, especially foods that are ready to eat or can be quickly microwaved.  Cook foods ahead of time, divide into ready-to-eat portions and freeze.  If sensitivity to dairy products develops, try soy, almond or rice milk, which are readily available at most supermarkets.

Both chemotherapy and radiation treatments can take some time.  Eat a snack or small meal about an hour before your treatment.  Chemo can often take several hours, so, take a snack along in an insulated bag.  At home, eat when you are hungry – don’t wait for “meal time.” To avoid negative emotional associations with your preferred foods and less-than-enjoyable treatments, eat your favorites on non-treatment days.  Extra protein is needed between treatments to help fight infection and heal normal tissues damaged during the chemo or radiation. Protein foods include meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, beans, peas, nuts/seeds and nut butters.

If there are times during treatment when you don’t feel like eating for several days, don’t beat yourself up.  When you feel better, make up for the calories you missed. If food tastes like metal, eat with plastic utensils. Sometimes, it’s easier to drink fluids than eat food. So, drink your calories when you don’t feel like eating. This can help prevent dehydration!

Rather than have 3 large meals a day, eat several small meals every 2 or 3 hours. Serve foods at room temperature. (The smell of hot food during cancer treatment can cause nausea.)  Fried or greasy foods may be hard to digest. Instead, stick with baked, broiled, stewed or grilled foods.

Drink plenty of liquids, and use a straw to help block any particular smell of the beverage.  If you start to feel bloated while eating, take a break and come back in a little while. Steer clear of foods with strong smells, such as garlic, fish, and onions.  If you have a sore mouth, take small bites and avoid tobacco products and alcoholic beverages.

Okay.  This is the part you’ve been waiting for.  Here are some of the  “recommended” foods you can eat to help with your nutrition, energy and weight:

  •  Creamy soups
  • Milk shakes
  • Fruit Smoothies
  • Muffins
  • Pudding
  • Eggs

To boost calories, fat and protein, feel free to add the following to your menus:

  • Butter, margarine or oil
  • Sour cream or cream cheese
  • Peanut Butter, almond butter or sunflower seed butter
  • Powdered milk
  • Whey protein or rice protein powder

There are also some specially blended liquid supplements that can be used if you don’t feel like eating or need extra nutrition. These supplements don’t require any preparation. Most supermarkets and pharmacies stock these drinks in the health or diet section. Ask your dietitian if you need help in finding a supplement.

Sources include: McLeod Health, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society, Cancer Research UK, Cancer Council, CancerCare, Inc.,