Blog » Latest Articles
Eating Well During Radiation Therapy
Aug 11, 2023

Eating Well During Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a part of many cancer treatment plans because it’s a highly effective way to destroy cancer cells. It can, however, be a little tough on the body. The benefit of this treatment outweighs the side effects for nearly all patients, and there are ways to feel the best you can while going through therapy. One of these is eating a nutritious diet. It’s important to feed your body what it needs to best promote healing and protect your immune system. Let’s look at what you need to know about nutrition during radiation therapy.

How Does Radiation Therapy Affect Your Body?

Radiation therapy can cause side effects – some are the same for most patients, such as fatigue, while others are specific to the area of the body that’s receiving treatment. Head and neck cancer patients may especially struggle with eating if radiation therapy is given as it affects the throat and/or mouth region. Patients receiving radiation therapy to the pelvic area may experience stomach issues, including nausea, gas, or diarrhea. Because of this, the nutrition needs can vary somewhat from patient to patient. 

Some patients experience a loss of appetite, especially if it’s hard to eat or hard to keep food long enough to digest it. But, a lack of supportive nutrients can make you feel even more weak and tired. That’s why it’s especially important for patients undergoing radiation therapy to eat a well-balanced diet, even when they’re not really feeling like it. Some foods, such as lean proteins and healthy fats, help to nourish tissue regrowth. Others will give you more energy. 

Nutrition Tips for Radiation Therapy Patients

Making certain adjustments to your diet can help you recover best from radiation therapy. Watch this video for common recommendations for eating well during radiation therapy.

Increase Protein and Healthy Fat Intake For Strength

It is important to eat a diet that is high in protein and healthy fats while undergoing radiation therapy. Protein helps maintain muscle mass and supports tissue healing, while healthy fats help lower inflammation and support immune function. Some foods to incorporate into your diet to help increase your protein consumption include eggs, nut butter, dairy products, meat, poultry, and fish. 

Although the body needs fat to survive, not all fats are equal. Opt for healthy fats, often referred to as unsaturated fats, when choosing foods. These can help heal your body, fight inflammation, and repair and replace injured tissue – all essential while undergoing radiation therapy. Some healthy fat options include olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and flax.

Eat Carbohydrates for Energy

Complex carbohydrates (carbs) can give your body an energy boost. Try to get your carbohydrates from healthy sources like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Unprocessed carbs from these types of sources provide the body with fiber and additional vitamins and minerals, whereas highly processed carbs typically contain fewer nutrients. 

Increase Calorie and Fluid Intake

Your doctor may recommend that you increase your caloric intake while undergoing radiation therapy. This is because a higher-calorie diet helps to give the body the energy it needs to support tissue health and regrowth. 

Dehydration is common for patients receiving radiation treatment, so it’s important that you consume enough water. Staying hydrated boosts energy, organ function, and healing and combats fatigue. Other than plain water, a few great ways to stay hydrated are juices, broths, sports drinks, and popsicles.

Take in Adequate Vitamins and Minerals

Certain vitamins and minerals can help your body with healing and support the immune system. You may be able to get adequate vitamins and minerals through diet alone, but your doctor may recommend some supplements to help increase levels. Talk with your doctor first before starting any new vitamins or supplements. 

Ways to Stay Nourished When You Don’t Feel Like Eating

Here are some tips that can help you still nourish your body even when you don’t feel like eating. 

  • Eat small, frequent meals. If your appetite is minimal or if you feel like a big meal just doesn’t sound good to you, try eating small, frequent meals instead. Keep snacks in your car or purse so that you can always have something small to reach for when you do feel hungry. 
  • Use protein powder in smoothies and drinks. Protein powder is a great way to get extra calories and nutrients in. It can be easier to drink something when your appetite is minimal rather than trying to eat a big meal. 
  • Soft foods. When the mouth or throat is the area of treatment, radiation can cause mouth sores and other side effects that make eating difficult. Eating softer foods like smoothies and broths can make it easier for you to still get the nutrients you need, even if chewing becomes difficult. 
  • Have meals with friends. Using mealtime as a time to meet with friends can motivate you to eat and make the whole experience more fun. Meet with friends at your home or at a local park for a picnic. The distraction of socializing may help to pull your attention away from the food, allowing you to relax into meal time a little more. 

Are There Any Foods That Should Be Avoided During Radiation Therapy?

Your doctor can help guide you with specific recommendations, but patients are typically told to avoid any foods that can interfere with digestion while undergoing radiation therapy (such as spicy foods). This is because it is common for radiation to cause digestive upset, such as nausea and diarrhea. Eating foods like spicy foods can further exacerbate this side effect. If there are any foods that you know will typically upset your stomach, it is best to steer clear of those (or at least check with your doctor first).

Other foods that should be avoided during radiation include:

  • Excess salt
  • Refined sugars 
  • Unsaturated fats
  • Excess alcohol

If there are any foods that you want to eat, but you’re unsure about, always check with your doctor first to see what their recommendations are. 

More Helpful Tips for Site-Specific Radiation Treatment 

When radiation is administered to certain body parts, some specific challenges may arise. If you are receiving radiotherapy to the head and neck region or to the pelvic area, the following suggestions may be helpful. 

Eating Tips for Head and Neck Cancer Radiation 

Radiation may impact eating if it is given to treat head and neck cancers. Side effects can include dry mouth, sores, nausea, loss of taste or a metallic taste, or difficulty chewing and swallowing. To help these uncomfortable side effects, consider the following:

  • Eat soft, bland foods that won’t irritate the mouth
  • Moisten foods with gravies or sauces
  • Avoid spicy foods or acidic fruit, such as oranges or grapefruit, that may inflame sores
  • Use plasticware instead of metal knives, forks, or cans
  • Suck on popsicles or lozenges to help increase saliva
  • Rinse your mouth every four to six hours for comfort and palette cleansing between meals. (Use an alcohol-free mouthwash or a water and baking soda solution. Speak with your doctor or dentist about what might work best for you.)

If you experience excessive mucus in your throat, gargle with warm salt water and sip on liquids throughout the day. Warm tea with honey may help clear the throat. Warm ginger tea may additionally help if experiencing nausea. Add calories by opting for sports or therapeutic nutrition drinks.

Your provider may recommend a temporary feeding tube if choking or the inability to eat, drink, or swallow becomes a concern.

Tips for Pelvic Area Radiation

Radiation therapy administered to the pelvic region can cause changes in your bowels or bladder inflammation. Possible side effects include bloating; difficulty urinating; diarrhea or constipation; and rectal irritation or itchiness (proctitis). To minimize complications after colorectal, prostate, or gynecologic cancer treatment, get recommendations from your care team and rely on best practices.

To help reduce bloating and gas:

  • Eat slowly and chew food well
  • Avoid chewing gum and carbonated drinks
  • Limit gas-producing foods, such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beans, and some artificial sweeteners, like sorbitol, aspartame, and stevia

To manage bladder issues:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid drinking caffeine and alcohol and consuming spicy foods
  • Avoid using tobacco products

If suffering from frequent, watery bowel movements:

  • Replenish fluids throughout the day
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol
  • Eat more soluble fiber, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, oats, apples without skins, and bananas
  • Speak with your physician if diarrhea does not improve

If suffering from constipation:

  • Drink eight to 10 cups of liquids a day
  • establish regularity by eating and trying to have a bowel movement on a schedule
  • Select high-fiber foods, such as bran cereals, popcorn, and fruits and vegetables with skins on
  • Light exercise can improve regularity
  • Contact your doctor if you are unable to have a bowel movement for three or more days; use laxatives only as recommended by a doctor

Minimize inflammation of the rectum (proctitis):

  • Avoid caffeine
  • Avoid spicy, acidic, and fatty foods during bouts of diarrhea
  • Try switching to alternative forms of milk if lactose intolerance may be a factor

Nutrition Counseling for Radiation Therapy Patients at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute

Help your body fight cancer and get the most benefit from your radiation by providing your body with balanced nutrition. Eating the right foods in the right amounts can help you rebuild strength, maintain energy, overcome some side effects of radiation therapy, and optimize the outcome of your cancer care. 

Willamette Valley Cancer Institute (WVCI) nutrition counseling services include dietitians trained to help cancer patients create a personalized nutrition plan based on your specific diagnosis, health history, and treatment plan. Our guidance can help you make food choices that do not aggravate your condition and that help you feel better throughout treatment. Our cancer centers are located throughout Willamette Valley and the Oregon coast, including Albany, Corvallis, Eugene, Florence, Lincoln City, and Newport, Oregon. 

find a WVCI cancer center location near you

For more information or to schedule an appointment with a dietician, please call (541) 683-5001 or toll-free (888) 384-9822