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Diet and brain tumours

A balanced diet can help you keep your strength and energy up, lower your risk of infection and help you recover well from treatment.

A lot of information about diet and tumours can be found on the internet and in newspapers. Many articles and websites claim to be able to cure or control tumours through diet or various supplements.

But, there’s no evidence that shows any specific food or diet is associated with the development, management or treatment of brain tumours.

Controlling your diet, however, may help to improve your quality of life and manage the side-effects of treatment.

You should always speak to your healthcare team if you are concerned about your diet and before making any significant changes to your diet.

Track your journey with BRIAN

Bloating, constipation, difficulty swallowing, nausea, weight loss and a sore mouth are just some of the effects you might be experiencing. Record when you have these in BRIAN’s quality-of-life tracker and use it as evidence to help your healthcare team support you.

Benefits of eating a healthy, balanced diet

healthy, well-balanced diet helps protect against health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.

Eating well allows you to feel as well as possible and helps your body recover from treatment side-effects by:

  • keeping up your strength and energy
  • maintaining your weight and your body’s store of nutrients
  • lowering your risk of infection
  • aiding the healing and recovery process.

It’s also essential to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after treatment. This makes sure you’re well hydrated, which helps you:

  • process drugs, such as chemotherapy medication
  • avoid bladder infections
  • prevent constipation.

If you have diarrhoea or are vomiting as a side-effect of treatment, you’ll need to replace the fluid and minerals lost by drinking more liquid than you normally do. Your medical team can supply you with special rehydration drinks or powders or tell you what would be appropriate for you to buy from a pharmacy.

If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you can maintain your diet during treatment but you should watch your intake of protein, iron, vitamin B12 and calcium. You should speak to your doctor or dietitian if you’re concerned about your diet impacting your recovery or if you wish to start a vegan or vegetarian diet.

If you follow a religious faith that requires fasting or includes strict rules about what can be eaten, you may be identified as vulnerable during a time of fasting, for example, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Often there are ways of seeking an exemption. If fasting falls at any time during your scheduled treatment, please discuss this with your doctor beforehand as well as your religious adviser to get advice about the best way to do this without affecting your recovery.

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A woman feeling supported as she scrolls through the posts in one of The Brain Tumour Charity's Online Support Groups.

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Our closed Facebook groups are a great place to connect with other people affected by a brain tumour and share tips about maintaining a healthy diet.

What should I eat when recovering from treatment?

There isn’t a specific diet that you should follow during or after treatment for a brain tumour.

However, your brain tumour, its treatment and other medication can all cause symptoms that make eating and drinking challenging. As a result, the usual advice on a healthy diet may need to be modified to meet your nutrition needs.

You should always speak to your healthcare team about any side-effects you’re experiencing, as there may be medication, complementary therapies or advice that can help.

Below are some tips dietitians give to those struggling with some of the most difficult food-related side-effects of treatment.

If you’re taking steroids for a long period, it‘s important to look after your bone health. Make sure you have plenty of calcium containing foods and ask your doctor if you should be taking a Vitamin D supplement.

Milk, cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais are all good sources of calcium. If you’re choosing to use dairy alternatives, remember to choose those with added calcium.

You should aim for 2-3 portions a day, where a portion is equivalent to a pot of yoghurt, a small matchbox size amount of cheese or a glass of milk (approximately 200ml).

If you’re trying to lose weight, choose lower or reduced fat and sugar products where possible.

You may be embarrassed to talk about constipation, but it’s very common and your healthcare team have heard it all before, so feel free to talk to them about it.

Constipation can be very painful and can affect your appetite for food. It can be a side-effect of some painkillers, anti-sickness medicines or chemotherapy drugs (most notably vincristine).

Your doctor may prescribe laxatives to help relieve the issue, but there are other simple ways to ease the pain, as well as prevent you being constipated again.

Try eating foods which are high in fibre, for example, wholegrain cereal, brown bread, brown rice, brown pasta, fresh fruit and vegetables, beans, pulses, dried fruits (especially prunes and dried apricots) and flaxseeds. However, make sure you increase the fibre in your diet gradually to prevent excessive bloating.

If you’re dehydrated your stools can become very hard, so make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluid, especially if you’re eating more fibre. Aim to drink enough so that your urine is a pale straw colour and remember that having a hot drink can also sometimes help.

Gentle exercise is known to help in keeping bowels moving, so stay active where possible.

Radiotherapy and pain medication can lead to a dry mouth, which increases the risk of tooth decay and infections like oral thrush.

Ask your doctor or nurse about suitable mouthwashes. They can help you avoid any that contain alcohol, as these can make dryness worse. Artificial saliva sprays and tablets may also help. 

Other ideas that can help:

  • Try having sips of cool drinks to moisten your mouth throughout the day – try sharp flavoured drinks, such as water with lemon and lime slices, fruit teas, sharp flavoured fizzy drinks, fruit juices and milk.
  • Try ice lollies, ice cubes, frozen grapes or melon.
  • Alternate bites of food with sips of drinks.
  • Choose moist foods and add sauces, gravies, custard or cream to food.
  • Avoid sticky, chewy or dry foods, such as breads, cold meat or chocolate.
  • Some people find sucking sweets, sugar-free chewing gum or eating citrus fruit helps produce saliva.

After a brain tumour diagnosis and during treatment, you may find it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight. This could be due to:

  • being less active because of fatigue or other side-effects
  • eating more because of boredom, stress, anxiety, low mood or depression
  • side-effects caused by some medicines, most notably steroids.

Gentle exercise can be a great way of maintaining a healthy weight, reducing the impact of fatigue and improving your mental wellbeing. Aim to be active as possible.

Try eating more low-fat, high-protein foods like lean meat, fish, eggs, beans and lentils. Making sure you included starchy foods, for example bread, rice or pasta, with every meal can help you feel fuller for longer.

Choosing foods that are full of fibre, like whole grains, fruits and vegetable, can not only help you maintain a healthy weight, but prevent constipation too. Drinking plenty of water and low-calorie drinks can have a similar effect and will stop you getting dehydrated.

When your hunger pangs really hit, it can help if you have snacks portioned out. However, you should try to avoid filling up on sugary and fatty snacks like crisps, sweets and chocolate.

The location of your tumour, and the effects of surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting. 

You may be given anti-sickness medication (also known as anti-emetics) to help prevent this but, if not, you can always ask your doctor or nurse to prescribe you something. There are lots of different types of anti-sickness medication available.

Other ideas that can help with nausea and vomiting are:

  • Try to eat smaller meals and snacks throughout the day, rather than 3 big meals.
  • Having an empty stomach can make nausea worse, so try not to miss meals.
  • Try eating dry foods, for example toast, dry cereals or crackers, when you wake up and every few hours.
  • Avoid foods or rooms with strong smells. Room temperature or cold foods are often best, for example, yoghurt and fruit, breakfast cereal, ice cream.
  • Avoid greasy and fatty foods, as they can take longer to digest.
  • Sucking boiled sweets, fruit sweets, mints or slices of fruit can be helpful.
  • Try to remain seated upright for at least an hour after eating.
  • Sip clear liquids frequently between meals to prevent dehydration or fizzy drinks, such as ginger ale, cola or lemonade helpful.
  • Food or drink containing peppermint, lemon or ginger can help reduce nausea.
  • Avoid your favourite foods until you feel well enough to enjoy them.
  • Anxiety can make nausea worse – try to make meals as calm and relaxed as possible.

Weight loss isn’t advised for anyone with an active tumour or who’s undergoing active treatment. This is because losing weight places stress on the body at a time when it’s already stressed.

If you’re particularly struggling with your eating, or losing weight, your doctor or dietitian might prescribe you with nourishing supplement drinks, which are high in energy, protein, vitamins and minerals.

To help with reduced appetite try these dos and don’ts.

Do

  • Eat your biggest meal when your appetite is at its best. So, if breakfast is your best meal, aim for something filling like a cooked breakfast or porridge
  • Enrich your food with extra energy and protein by adding ingredients like avocado, syrup, nut butters, oils and seeds
  • Accept offers of help with food shopping, preparing meals and cooking
  • Set reminders to eat every 2-3 hours in the day if you don’t feel hungry
  • Try to keep as active as possible to help work up your appetite.

Don’t

  • Fill your plate up. Large portions can be off-putting and you can always get a second helping if you’re still hungry.
  • Drink lots of energy drinks that are high in sugar and caffeine. They can give a short-term lift, but may make you feel worse in the longer-term.
  • Forget that nutritious meals don’t always have to be hot meals. If you’re too tired to cook, have something cold
  • Feel like you need to eat 3 large meals every day. Instead, try eating  6-8 small meals or snacks each day.
  • Cook if you’re already feeling fatigued. Adding extra vegetables to a ready meal can make sure you still have a balanced diet.

Short- and long-term swallowing problems can be caused by the position of the tumour or following surgery.

Referral to a speech and language therapist can be helpful, as they can advise on suitable textures for food and drinks and prescribe exercises.

Brain tumour treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can sometimes affect your senses of taste and smell.

Some people experience a complete loss of taste, while others report unpleasant tastes, such as a bitter or metallic taste. Or you could be sensitive to certain flavours, for example, finding sweet foods too intensely sweet.

If you’re finding sweet foods overwhelming, try sticking to savoury snacks, like crisps, salted nuts or cheese and crackers. Similarly, if you’re finding salty foods unpleasant, add more sweet foods to your diet.

If you’re generally finding food bland, try adding textures to your food, such as breadcrumbs or crushed crisps over savoury dishes or sprinkle chopped nuts on desserts.

Experimenting with flavours can help you cope with taste changes, including:

  • using stronger flavours like lemon and vinegar
  • adding pickles, sauces and relishes to meals
  • trying a wider range of herbs and spices
  • marinating meat and fish in sauces.

Keeping your mouth fresh by rinsing your mouth and brushing your teeth frequently can also help make eating a more enjoyable experience.

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I felt so bloated and heavy from the steroids, I didn’t recognise myself anymore.

Is there anything I should avoid eating when having treatment for my brain tumour?

Certain treatments, for example chemotherapy, can leave you with low immunity. If this is the case, you should avoid foods associated with a high risk of food poisoning, including:

  • unpasteurised milk or yoghurt made from unpasteurised milk
  • certain soft, slow-ripened or blue-veined cheeses or cheeses made from unpasteurised milk (e.g. brie, camembert, Danish blue, stilton and gorgonzola).
  • eggs (unless they are marked with a “Lion mark” and cooked until the white and yolk are solid)
  • pâté (unless it’s tinned)
  • rare or undercooked meat and poultry
  • uncooked shellfish
  • raw or lightly-cooked beansprouts.

If you’re not sure about any foods, speak to your healthcare team or dietitian for advice.

Don’t forget to mention to your healthcare team and family if you have any food allergies or intolerances. 

They can help make sure that you don’t eat these foods, if you’re staying in hospital or receiving care at home which involves providing meals.


Tips from our community

“I’ve cut out alcohol and coffee – anything that can cross the blood brain barrier. Everyone is different, but, while it’s been hard, this approach is working for me.”

“I basically aim for a gut friendly diet, which includes no processed food and minimal sugar. I’m feeling good!”

“I have followed a very low carb diet from day one after surgery and right through radiotherapy and chemo. My blood counts have always been fine, so I feel like I’m doing something right!”

“My partner got diabeties from the steroids he was on, so we had a hard time controlling that for a while. But now that’s sorted they aim to cook most things from scratch and tries to stick to organic foods.”

By joining one of our our Online Support Communities, you can get more tips about living with or beyond a brain tumour diagnosis from people who truly understand what you’re going through.

Find out more


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What is a balanced diet?

Healthy eating is about the overall balance of your diet over weeks, months and years. It’s about having a diet of foods you enjoy, with as much variety as possible and not too much of anything.

A healthy diet consists of a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats and well as other nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals.

The Eatwell Guide 

Use the Eatwell Guide to help you get a balance of healthier and more sustainable food. It shows how much of what you eat overall should come from each food group.

You can also find excellent general advice about achieving a healthy diet on the NHS Eatwell website.

The Eatwell Guide graphic is Crown copyright 2020 and was produced by Public Health England in association with the Welsh government, Food Standards Scotland and the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland.

A graphic visualisation of the NHS Eatwell Guide to maintaining a healthy and balanced diet.

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Download our diet resources

Diet factsheet – PDF

Find out more about diet and brain tumours in the full fact sheet.

Eatwell Guide (colour) – PDF

Use the Eatwell Guide to help you get a balance of healthier and more sustainable food. It shows how much of what you eat overall should come from each food group.

Eatwell Guide (greyscale) – PDF

Use the Eatwell Guide to help you get a balance of healthier and more sustainable food. It shows how much of what you eat overall should come from each food group.

Eatwell Guide – JPEG

Use the Eatwell Guide to help you get a balance of healthier and more sustainable food. It shows how much of what you eat overall should come from each food group.


If you have further questions, need to clarify any of the information on this page, or want to find out more about research and clinical trials, please contact our team:
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