Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer by destroying cancerous cells, but it may weaken your body’s immune system at the same time. A neutropenic diet may be recommended to help prevent infection, but research published in “Cancer Nursing” in 2013 did not find a reduction of infections with this diet. The American Cancer Society recommends a balanced diet full of protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins and minerals. Diet can also help alleviate several unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy.
The Neutropenic Diet
Normally your immune system is able to fight off bacteria found in food. Chemotherapy may weaken your immune system, which can lead to dangerous infections. A neutropenic diet avoids foods that contain harmful bacteria. Foods avoided include raw or uncooked fruits and vegetables, rare meat, fish, eggs, raw nuts, unpasteurized dairy, yogurt, cold brewed tea and sun tea. Salad bars, such as those found in restaurants, are also not included on the neutropenic diet. A study published in “Cancer Nursing” reviewed the benefits of a neutropenic diet. Researchers selected participants who received chemotherapy and had weakened immune systems. These individuals followed their normal diet or a neutropenic diet. Researchers did not find a difference in the number of infections between the two groups.
Diet Recommendations During Chemotherapy
The American Cancer Society recommends eating good sources of protein, fat, carbohydrate, water, vitamins and minerals. These foods give your body the nutrients it needs to fight cancer. Recommended foods include fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, olive oil, flaxseed and plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains including quinoa, brown rice, breads and cereals. It is also important to remember to handle food safely. Washing your hands with warm, soapy water for 30 seconds is critical to prevent food-borne illness. Use a separate knife and cutting board for raw and cooked foods. Beef, pork, veal and lamb must be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, while ground meats should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Diarrhea and Constipation
Diarrhea and constipation are two unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy that diet may help manage. If you suffer from severe diarrhea, you may require medication, but foods such as white rice, applesauce, oatmeal and white toast can also help. Salty foods, such as crackers and pretzels can help replace lost electrolytes like sodium. Drinking fruit juices such as apricot, peach and pear nectars may help. Remember to drink plenty of fluids as well. If you are experiencing constipation, eating foods that contain fiber, such as oatmeal, applesauce, cooked whole grains, quinoa and rice, may help.
Nausea, Dry Mouth and Poor Appetite
You can combat nausea by eating small, frequent meals and selecting bland, odorless foods. Some ideas include chicken noodle soup, scrambled eggs and toast. Foods with ginger may also help nausea. If you suffer from dry mouth, smoothies, warm soup, yogurt or mashed potatoes may help. Add milk, broth, sauces or gravy to foods. Another idea is to freeze grapes, cantaloupe, peach or watermelon to eat. Those undergoing chemotherapy may also experience a lack of appetite, so try choosing your favorite foods. Drinking calorically dense smoothies may be a better choice than drinking water or coffee, which contains very few calories.
- American Cancer Society: Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Chemotherapy and Diet
- Univtersity of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Neutropenic Diet
- Cancer Nursing: Cochrane Review Summary for Cancer Nursing: Low-Bacterial Diet Versus Control Diet to Prevent Infection in Cancer Patients Treated With Chemotherapy Causing Episodes of Neutropenia
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart
- BreastCancer.org: Handling Your Food Safely