November 08, 2021
Nutrition during radiation therapy treatment: What patients should know
BY Karen Vollmering
Many cancer patients lose weight unexpectedly during radiation therapy because they struggle with side effects caused from treatment. Maintaining proper nutrition during radiation therapy can increase your chances of successful treatment and improve your quality of life during and after treatment.
We spoke with senior clinical dietician Haley Deas to answer common nutrition questions asked by patients facing radiation therapy. Here’s what she had to share.
How important is protein during radiation therapy?
Getting the right amount of protein is very important during radiation treatment. Each meal or snack should have some source of protein. This will help spare lean muscle mass while repairing damage from radiation.
Some good protein-rich foods to try are:
- nuts/nut butters
- dairy products
If you’re having trouble eating solid foods, try meal replacement drinks to make sure you get enough protein.
How can I stay hydrated during radiation therapy?
Staying hydrated makes side effects less severe and lowers your chances of missing or delaying cancer treatments. It’s important to avoid dehydration during treatment to protect your organs from long-term damage. Our goal is for patients to drink enough liquids to allow for normal body functions.
All non-alcoholic beverages count toward keeping you hydrated. If you don’t enjoy drinking water, try flavored waters or waters infused with fruit or vegetables to improve the taste. The average radiation therapy patient needs 8 to 12 cups of water per day.
If you are going to consume caffeinated drinks like tea or coffee, we recommend having no more than 1 to 2 glasses a day as it may make dry mouth worse. This is a common side effect during treatment. It’s also important to pay attention to your urine. If your urine is not a pale yellow, you could be slightly dehydrated.
You can also get some of the fluid you need from milk, sports drinks, tea, and moist foods like soup, Jell-O, yogurt, sherbet and pudding. Beverages containing alcohol do not count as part of your daily hydration. Patients should talk to their doctor about the use of alcohol during treatment.
Is it OK to take supplements during radiation therapy?
Let your care team know about any supplements you are taking. Antioxidant supplements should be avoided during radiation therapy because they may end up protecting your cancer cells.
Our goal is for patients to receive their daily vitamin and mineral intake from food and drinks. If a patient has a deficiency of a specific nutrient, their care team may recommend a supplement based on lab results and symptoms.
What can I eat to help manage side effects from radiation therapy?
Side effects and diet recommendations vary based on the location of the tumor and the location of your body where you’re receiving radiation. Here are some common radiation therapy side effects that can be managed by making changes to your diet:
- Nausea and vomiting. Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Drinking clear liquids or eating bland foods such as dry toast or crackers may also help. Avoid fatty, fried, spicy or very sweet foods. Try drinking liquids between meals instead of with your meals. Create a pleasant setting with soft music, conversation or other distractions to improve the experience.
- Mouth/throat pain. Eat soft and moist foods that are easy to swallow. Avoid raw vegetables and fruits, and other hard, dry foods such as chips or pretzels. It’s also best to avoid salty, spicy or acidic foods if you are experiencing these symptoms. Your care team can recommend nutrient-based oral care solutions if you are experiencing mucositis or mouth sores caused by cancer treatment.
- Mouth dryness. Keep water nearby so you can take frequent sips and rinse your mouth between meals. You can also rinse or spray your mouth using artificial saliva or baking soda. Maintain good oral hygiene. Use baking soda and salt rinses four to six times a day. This helps the pH balance and reduces bacteria in your mouth. Brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush after every meal and at bedtime. Avoid commercial mouthwashes that contain a large amount of salt or alcohol. You can also try ice chips, sugarless hard candies or sugarless chewing gum. Add liquids to solid foods, such as gravy, sauce, milk or yogurt.
- Taste and smell changes. Reduce the smell of foods by eating cold or room temperature meals. If you have a metallic taste in your mouth, try using plastic utensils and avoid canned foods. If you have a salty or bitter taste, add honey, agave nectar or jam to foods. If foods taste too sweet, increase salty or tart flavors with lemon, citrus fruits, vinegar, pickled foods or salt. (Avoid these if you have mouth or throat sores.) If you have a bad taste in your mouth, try sugar-free gum, peppermints, lemon drops, sorbet or frozen fresh fruit.
- Gas. For prostate cancer patients, we recommend avoiding foods that cause gas since this might affect preparation for treatment. Foods that cause gas include asparagus, beans, beer, broccoli, cabbage, corn, cucumbers, eggs, fish, milk, mushrooms, nuts, peppers and spicy foods. Also avoid foods that are labeled sugar-free, since these have ingredients, like sugar alcohols, that often cause gas.
What should my nutrition goals be after treatment?
Once your body has healed after treatment, we encourage a plant-based diet to promote long-term health and wellness. Limit red meat, sugar, processed foods and alcohol. This will help promote a healthy weight. As your cancer treatment changes, so do your nutritional needs.
How can a clinical dietitian help me during cancer treatment?
A clinical dietitian will go over your specific nutrition goals based on your age, height, weight and treatment plan. They can also recommend changes to your diet to help ease side effects. At MD Anderson, all patients can ask their care team for a referral to one of our clinical dietitians.
Don’t hesitate to follow up with your dietitian during the course of your treatment. If you’re an MD Anderson patient, you can always MyChart, or schedule a follow-up appointment by calling Clinical Nutrition at 713-563-5167. We’re here to support you throughout your cancer treatment and beyond.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
As your cancer treatment changes, so do your nutritional needs.
Senior Clinical Dietitian