Patient Referral

Best Diet for Cancer Patients

Woman with cancer

Good nutrition is crucial for cancer patients before, during, and after treatment. But treatments like radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or surgery often lead to a loss of appetite, making it challenging for patients to maintain a healthy diet. A well-balanced diet is vital to help patients feel better, stay strong, maintain consistent weight, heal, and sustain energy throughout their cancer journey. Here are some key elements of proper nutrition for cancer patients:

  1. High Nutrient Density: Foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can help support the immune system and overall health. This includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
  2. Protein: Protein is vital for healing and recovery. This includes foods like lean meats, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Plant-based protein also offers an extra layer of vitamins and minerals, which include foods like legumes, soy products, beans, nuts, and seeds.
  3. Healthy Fats: Omega-3 fatty acids help fight inflammation and support brain health. This is found in fish like salmon and sardines, as well as flaxseeds and walnuts.
  4. Easy to Digest Foods: Some cancer treatments can cause digestive issues. Soft, bland foods like soups, stews, porridge, and yogurt can be easier on the stomach.
  5. Adequate Hydration: Staying hydrated is especially important for cancer patients. Water, herbal teas, and clear broths can help maintain fluid levels, especially if nausea or diarrhea is an issue.
  6. Avoid Sugar and Refined Foods: Try to limit sodas, candy, white flour, instant foods, and other processed snack foods since they can contribute to fatigue.


Woman with cancer on a computer in bed

Cancer and taste changes.

Taste changes are a common side effect experienced by cancer patients, particularly those undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These changes can make food taste too sweet, too salty, too bitter, metallic, lack flavor, and even smell different.

Writing in a food diary can help cancer patients keep track of what foods work best for them. They should also keep an open mind to new foods, since things they used to hate might taste delicious now. Here are some more specific strategies to cope with these taste changes:

When food tastes too sweet.

When cancer patients experience a too sweet taste in their mouth, they should focus on foods that are acidic, bitter, sour, savory, spicy, or salty, which can balance out or reduce the perception of sweetness. Try foods like:

  • Fruits including lemon, lime, oranges, and cranberries
  • Kale or arugula
  • Foods with vinegar, pepper, garlic, onion, or herbs
  • Chips or pretzels with dip
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Deviled eggs
  • Peanut butter or other nuts

When food tastes metallic.

There are several strategies to try when cancer patients experience a metallic taste in their mouth. It may be helpful to use plastic utensils instead of metal. Cooking with non-metallic cookware like glass or ceramic can also help. If the patient prefers meat over the alternatives listed below, acidic ingredients like vinegar or lemon juice can help, as well as marinades with robust herbs and spices to neutralize metallic tastes. Specific foods that can help include:

  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Beans
  • Quiche
  • Hummus
  • Peanut butter

When food tastes too salty.

A persistent salty taste in the mouth of cancer patients can be a side effect of treatments that impact the salivary glands or oral tissues. It can also stem from dehydration. Drinking plenty of water helps flush the salty taste from the mouth and keeps tissues hydrated. Using a humidifier can help keep the air moist, relieve dry mouth, and reduce the salty taste as well. Foods that are mild and easy on the palate can help improve the eating experience, including:

  • Fresh fruits like apples, bananas, berries, melons, and pears
  • Steamed or raw vegetables like carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, and broccoli
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and mild cheese
  • Oatmeal, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta
  • Low sodium protein like chicken, turkey, tofu, and fish prepared without added salt.

When food tastes too bitter.

When food tastes overly bitter to cancer patients, there are many strategies that can help make eating more enjoyable. Eating cold or room temperature foods might reduce the perception of bitterness since cooler foods tend to have less intense flavor. Other foods to try include:

  • Natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup
  • A pinch of salt, lemon juice, or vinegar
  • Creamy textures like yogurt, avocados, or smoothies
  • Rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Plain noodles
  • Pierogies
  • Vanilla pudding
  • Plain crackers

When food lacks flavor.

If food is lacking in flavor, try adding different spices, sauces, and marinades to increase the taste of the food.
Ideas to try include:

  • Barbecue sauce, ketchup, mustard
  • Soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, vinegar
  • Spices and herbs
  • Onion, garlic, peppers
  • Bacon or ham strips
  • Cheese and nuts

Odor issues

If food odors are affecting taste, try eating room temperature and cold foods. Limit food smells with lids, fans, and open windows. Some ideas for these meals include:

  • Cold salads like tuna, egg, or pasta salad
  • Milkshakes
  • Yogurt or pudding


Woman with cancer in a hospital

Nutrition at end of life.

Despite all the best advancements in modern medicine, there may come a time when cancer treatment is no longer working. One of the biggest concerns families face is when their loved one stops eating and drinking as the end approaches.

As hard as it is for families to accept, it’s okay for your loved one to stop eating and drinking on hospice. As the body begins to shut down, it begins to conserve energy and no longer needs extra nutrition. Forcing a patient to eat or drink when they no longer need to do so can complicate things by causing the patient to choke or aspirate instead of experiencing a peaceful death.

At Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care, we provide support to cancer patients at all stages of their illness from treating side effects from radiation or chemotherapy with palliative care to providing end-of-life symptom management for hospice patients. Please call 1-888-564-3405 to learn more about hospice eligibility for cancer patients.


If you found this information helpful, please share it with your network and community.
Copyright © 2020 Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care. All rights reserved. 

Related Content
Heart Icon

Want to give back?