5 mins. read

Eating after chemotherapy: managing taste discomfort, fatigue and more through food

Perci Professional and dietitian Teresa Day discusses practical tips for chemo side-effects

An image of square ice cubes representing that cold food can be more palatable after chemotherapy

Key takeaways

  • Taste changes: this is the most common side effect reported after chemo. Suggestions for improving this include, drinking lots of fluids, trying different foods to see which you prefer and using children’s toothpaste if your mouth is sensitive.
  • Lacking in energy: if you are tired it’s important to keep your energy levels up. Try eating little and often and eating a main meal at lunchtime so you digest during the day.
  • Diarrhoea issues: another typical side effect can be eased by avoiding high-fibre foods, spicy foods and hot drinks.

When you have finished a course of chemotherapy you may find that what you fancy eating, when you want it and how it makes you feel is unsettled. This will get better with time but how do you get through the early days?

Dietitian and Perci Professional Teresa Day has advice for three main side-effects that you may experience: changes in taste and appetite, fatigue and diarrhoea.


Managing changes in taste and appetite

Taste changes are one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. If you have experienced changes in your sense of taste, you may find that the taste changes take a while to improve. This is because your taste buds need to regenerate which can take at least a couple of weeks, and for some can take longer. Some chemotherapy drugs can also cause a bitter or metallic taste in the mouth which can also influence how you feel about food. While the presence of a dry mouth (a chemo side-effect) can also cause taste changes as you need saliva to taste food.

Here are some suggestions which can help:

An image of wooden cutlery, including a chopsticks, spoon and fork
Try wooden or bamboo-made cutlery if you have a metallic taste in your mouth post-chemo
  • Drink plenty of fluids, you may find it helpful to have a glass of water with your meals and to carry a water bottle with you throughout the day.
  • Eating cold or warm foods may be more palatable than hot.
  • Use wooden or bamboo cutlery if you have a metallic taste in your mouth.
  • If you find meat tastes different and disagreeable, try using a marinade.
  • Adding more seasoning, spice and herbs can help make food more interesting, provided your mouth is not sore. On the other hand, some people find that bland foods taste better.
  • Keep trying different foods gradually as your taste will improve over time.
  • Oral hygiene is important so brush your teeth regularly and use a gentle mouthwash. Try using a children’s toothpaste if you find that you are sensitive to your usual toothpaste.

Combating fatigue

It is very common to feel tired and lacking in energy after chemotherapy, this can affect your appetite and make it difficult to eat well.

Here are some suggestions which may help:

  • Small frequent meals or snacks can be easier to manage than large meals.
  • Having your main meal at lunchtime can help as you may find you are too tired in the evening.
  • Accept offers of help with preparing food and meals.
  • Don’t worry about using ready meals or ready prepared foods, they are fine in the short term.
  • If you cook a meal try to make a larger portion and freeze the rest for days when you may feel more tired than usual.

Dealing with diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is a common side effect of many chemotherapy drugs and this can take some time to improve.

Here are some suggestions which may help:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to replace the fluid lost.
  • Avoid foods high in fibre such as wholegrain bread and cereals, peas, nuts and beans. Keep your portions of fruit and vegetables small. Fruit juices such as apple juice can make the problem worse.
  • Avoid drinking hot drinks such as tea and coffee, especially on an empty stomach.
  • Choose easily digested foods such as white fish, poultry, well-cooked eggs, white bread, pasta or rice.
  • You might find that avoiding spicy, fried or fatty foods helps.

If your diarrhoea doesn’t improve or if it gets worse, particularly if you are having diarrhoea at night or find it difficult to get to the toilet in time please seek medical attention

Seek advice

Dealing with eating problems can be daunting; it can be difficult to know what to eat especially if you are experiencing more than one problem.

There is a lot of information on the web about diet and cancer but not all of it is based on good quality evidence and may not be right for you. For instance, some diets are very restrictive and can make it very difficult to get all the nutrients you need for health.

A consultation with a Perci dietitian can help you to find the best diet for you. They will take into account your medical history, your food preferences and your lifestyle and will support you in overcoming any eating problems you might have.

To find out more about Teresa Day and her availability, click here.

While we have ensured that every article is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to one of our healthcare professionals or your primary healthcare team.

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