How do I make the best food choices throughout cancer treatment?

When you are faced with a head and neck cancer diagnosis, nutrition can be an important part of your journey. Eating a well-balanced diet during and after cancer treatment can help you feel better, maintain your strength, and speed your recovery.

Know your risk. Head and neck cancer and treatment increase the risk for nutrition issues, including malnutrition. Malnutrition occurs when a person is not receiving or absorbing proper nutrition and the right amount of calories and nutrients needed for healthy bodily function. Malnutrition increases the risk for health complications, hospitalizations, and poor quality of life. Tell your healthcare team immediately about any new or worsening side effects or weight loss. For more on head and neck cancer, visit our recommended resources.

Receive ongoing nutrition support. You may need ongoing support from a registered dietitian in your area, especially if you experience ongoing weight loss or severe side effects such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Ask your healthcare team for a referral to local registered dietitian who specializes in helping cancer patients. You can also ask your health insurance provider for a referral or use the Find an Expert tool provided by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). (You may also schedule a time to talk to one of our registered dietitians for general education and guidance, but you would benefit most from having a registered dietitian as a member of your healthcare team.)

Maintain a healthy weight. Unintentional weight loss is a common while undergoing treatment for head and neck cancers due to many side effects that may make eating difficult. If you notice that you are losing 1-2 pounds a week consistently, discuss with your healthcare team on what you can do to increase your calorie intake and prevent further weight loss.

Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Eating frequent small meals will ensure your body is getting enough calories, protein, and nutrients to tolerate treatment. Smaller meals may also help to reduce treatment-related side effects such as nausea. Try eating 5-6 small meals or “mini” meals about every three hours.

Choose protein-rich foods. Protein helps the body to repair cells and tissues. It also helps your immune system recover from illness. Include a source of lean protein at all meals and snacks. Good sources of lean protein include:

  • Lean meats such as chicken, fish, or turkey
  • Eggs
  • Low-fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese or dairy substitutes
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Beans
  • Soy foods

Include whole grains. Whole grains provide a good source of carbohydrate and fiber, which help keep your energy levels up. Good sources of whole grains include:

  • Oatmeal
  • Whole wheat breads
  • Brown rice
  • Whole grain pastas

Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. Fruits and vegetables offer the body antioxidants which can help fight against cancer. Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to get the greatest benefit. Aim to eat a minimum of 5 servings of whole fruits and vegetables daily.

Choose sources of healthy fat. Avoid fried, greasy, and fatty foods, Choose baked, broiled, or grilled foods instead. Healthy fats include:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Limit sweets and added sugars. Foods high in added sugars like desserts and sweets provide little nutritional benefit and often take the place of other foods that are better for you.

Stay hydrated. Drinking enough fluids during cancer treatment is important for preventing dehydration. Aim to drink 64 ounces of fluid daily. Avoid drinking large amounts of caffeinated beverages. Too much caffeine can lead to dehydration.

Use good mouth care. Chemotherapy and radiation to the head or neck can irritate the lining of the mouth, throat, and esophagus. This irritation can make eating and swallowing difficult. You may also experience dry mouth, which can affect your ability to eat. Good mouth care is very important if you have mouth soreness. Brush your teeth with gentle toothpaste after eating and floss daily. Always discuss any mouth sores or dry mouth you may experience with your healthcare team.

Practice good food safety. Wash your hands often while preparing food. Use different knives and cutting boards for raw meat and raw vegetables. Be sure to cook all foods to their proper temperature and refrigerate leftovers right away. Read more about food safety.

Talk to your healthcare team before taking any vitamins or supplements. Some medications and cancer treatments may interact with vitamins and supplements. Choose food first as the primary source for nutrients.

Most importantly, know that your cancer journey is unique to you and your treatment.

Recommended Resource for Head and Neck Cancer

  • Head and Neck Cancer Alliance
    Phone: (866) 916-5107
    The Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA) provides support to head and neck cancer patients, supports ongoing research, and educates people about the disease, treatment, and prevention of head and neck cancers. On their website you can find educational information, an online support community, and financial support resources.
  • Cancer Support Community’s Eating Well with Head & Neck Cancer
    Click here to download PDF Download. Or, click here to view online version.
    Phone: (888) 793-9355

    The first half of this booklet addresses how head and neck cancer patients can cope with common eating problems. The second half of this booklet features recipes to help with common problems.

For more resources, visit our Recommended Resources page.