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Top tips for eating well during treatment

It can be hard to eat well when you’re going through chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment. We asked an expert how to get the nutrients that you need.

One way or another, chemotherapy and radiotherapy play havoc with your appetite. Favourite foods won’t seem appealing if you’re suffering from a painful mouth or throat, have a metallic taste in your mouth or feel nauseous.

Or, if you’ve been prescribed steroids, you might struggle to control your appetite and experience dramatic weight gain as a result.

According to Monika Siemicka, dietitian at Guy’s Hospital in London, the most important thing that you can do to support your recovery is eat a balanced diet.

“There isn’t one specific ‘superfood’ that’s most important, and chemotherapy won’t cause you to be deficient in any particular vitamin,” she explains. “If you’ve lost your appetite, don’t force yourself to eat as you used to, it’s fine to eat little and often instead.”

Monika admits that eating a balanced diet isn’t always as easy as it sounds, especially if you’re not feeling well. But there are a few tricks you can try to make meals more appealing.

Tricks to try

1. Eat protein-rich foods

“Try to eat protein-rich foods 2-3 times per day as this helps to maintain muscle mass,” says Monika. “If you’re struggling, choose scrambled eggs, fish pie, shepherd’s pie and mince instead of steak, as these are easier to eat.”

Can’t face a full meal? Try nourishing snacks like cheese on toast, yoghurt or a milky drink.

2. Try soft carbs

Carbohydrates are an important source of energy, but you might prefer white bread and pasta to wholegrain varieties. 

“Opt for fluffy white rice or mashed potato — both are nice and soft,” says Monika.

3. Avoid sharp or spicy foods

It’s best to avoid spicy or acidic foods, like lemon, vinegar or pineapple, as these can be painful to eat if you have a sore mouth.

However, if your main problem is taste, you might find that adding herbs and spices or choosing sharper-tasting foods helps your food to taste better.

4. Add sauces to meat

“Eating meat can be difficult if you have that metallic taste in your mouth,” says Monika. “So think about preparing a marinade, or eating cold meats with chutney. Some people also find it helps to use plastic cutlery.”

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5. Get your veggies in

We all know that fruit and vegetables are important. If you’re struggling with steroid-related weight gain, snacking on fruit and veg sticks is a low-calorie way to fill up.

But if you’re not eating much, Monika recommends thinking about what you can add, whether that’s butter on your vegetables or a creamy dressing on your salad.

“This is a great way to get the goodness from the vegetables, while adding some extra calories,” she says.

6. Opt for soups, smoothies or shakes

When you can’t stomach solid food, soups and smoothies can be helpful.

“Try adding milk, cream, beans or cheese to soups,” advises Monika. “Smoothies are really popular, so add nuts, peanut butter and whole milk to increase the calories and provide some good fats.

“If you’re really struggling to eat, talk to your doctor who can prescribe nutritionally-complete shakes like Fortisip or Foodlink.”

7. Avoid unbalanced diets

Many people believe that the ketogenic diet (a very low-carb, high-fat diet) can help treat brain tumours and related seizures. But Monika says there’s no evidence that it works.

“The keto diet is extremely restrictive and difficult to follow. When people are going through treatment, a balanced diet is very important, and maintaining weight is beneficial — the keto diet works against these goals. There’s nowhere near enough evidence to support it, so it isn’t something I can recommend.”

8. Ask about mouthwashes

“If you have a sore mouth, or you’re suffering from ulcers, your doctor can prescribe a soothing mouthwash,” says Monika.

“If you’re having radiotherapy, ask your doctor about solutions that you can rinse around your mouth (and swallow) to help with the pain. Or mix up a salt solution to rinse your mouth with after you eat.”

9. Try soluble painkillers

Monika suggests, “Take soluble paracetamol four times per day to ease a sore mouth and throat.”

10. Check for thrush

“Check your mouth and tongue for white patches,” says Monika. “These can indicate thrush, which can make food taste different. It’s easily treated.”

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