Why you may need a soft diet | Cancer Research UK
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Why you may need a soft diet

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This page tells you about why you may need a soft diet and which cancers and treatments make this most likely. There is information on


Why you may need a soft diet

Eating and drinking are part of every day life. It is not often that we have to stop and think about whether we are able to swallow or chew certain foods or drinks. But the process of chewing and swallowing are quite complicated.

To move food from your mouth to stomach you need all the muscles in your mouth, throat and voice box (larynx) to work properly. If you have had surgery for a cancer of the head or neck, then these muscles may have been affected. This can make chewing and swallowing difficult. How difficult it is will depend on

  • The type and position of the cancer
  • The size of the tumour
  • The type of treatment you are having

If you have had treatment for a head and neck cancer, you may

  • Need to swallow often to help clear food from your mouth and throat
  • Have a voice that gurgles and sounds 'wet' after you swallow
  • Cough or choke when you are eating or drinking
  • Need to clear your throat after each mouthful of food
  • Have pain and dryness when swallowing

You may have difficulty swallowing because you have

  • Had surgery
  • Had a course of radiotherapy to your head or neck area
  • Had a tube (stent) put into your food pipe
  • Had your voice box removed
  • A tumour blocking part of your throat, voice box (larynx) or food pipe (oesophagus)
  • A sore mouth or throat due to chemotherapy

It is important to eat well to make sure you are getting enough calories and protein to get better and keep up your weight and strength. This helps your immune system to work as well as it can, and get the best response possible to treatment. If you have had cancer treatment to your mouth or throat, you may have a sore mouth and throat because of side effects. 

You might need to switch to foods and drinks that are easier to swallow and chew for a while. This is called a soft diet. This may be a temporary thing while you are having treatment or it could be a permanent change.


Cancers likely to cause swallowing problems

The types of cancer most likely to cause swallowing problems and make you need a soft diet are cancers of the

  • Voice box (larynx)
  • Thyroid gland
  • Mouth and tongue (oral cancer)
  • Throat (pharynx)
  • Nasal cavity and sinuses
  • Melanoma or other skin cancer on the face
  • Salivary glands
  • Oesophagus (foodpipes)

Many people with these types of cancers find it hard to eat well because they have difficulty chewing or swallowing. Doctors call difficulty swallowing 'dysphagia'.



Surgery to your mouth (oral surgery) can make it difficult to control food and liquids inside your mouth. Food or drinks can leak out of the side or front of your mouth. If your throat (pharynx) muscles are weak, you may find it hard to move food and liquids from your mouth to your food pipe (oesophagus). Some people may cough and choke at times because food or drinks have gone down the wrong way.

If you have had your voice box removed for cancer of the larynx, inhaling food or drink will not be a problem because your windpipe will no longer open into your mouth. But you may still have difficulty moving food from your mouth down into your oesophagus. 

Your sense of smell will be poorer after your laryngectomy because you can no longer breathe air into your nose. This affects your sense of taste, so you may prefer more strongly flavoured foods than you used to.



You may need a course of radiotherapy after cancer surgery to try and kill any remaining cancer cells. Radiotherapy to the head and neck can lead to

  • Soreness in the throat and mouth
  • A dry mouth because less saliva is produced
  • Stiffness of the muscles and other tissues around the treatment area
  • Loss of taste

You may have difficulty chewing and swallowing. Mouth and throat pain may also cause problems and mean that you eat less. You may need to get painkillers from your doctor. You can take these an hour or so before you eat.

Coming to terms with swallowing or chewing problems can be difficult. You may feel that meal times are no longer enjoyable. You may want to eat alone because you find it embarrassing to eat and drink in front of people. A soft diet may help to make things easier for you.

It may take a while to adjust to a soft diet. This may only be a temporary change for you, while you recover from treatment. But for some people it may be permanent. If so, try to be patient with yourself and give yourself time to get used to things.

If you have a major course of radiotherapy to your mouth, you may find your sense of taste is poor afterwards. You may need to eat more strongly flavoured foods than you did before your treatment. 

Adding garlic, herbs and sauces may help. Meat, chicken or fish can be marinated in wine. Italian dressings, sweet and sour sauce and sweet fruit juice will enhance flavours. Tart foods have a strong taste - you can include lemons, limes, oranges and gooseberries, lemon yoghurt, lemon cheesecake, orange mousse, lemon sorbet and stewed gooseberries. But you might need to avoid these if you have a sore mouth.

Everyone has different food likes and dislikes, so it really is a case of 'try it and see'. Avoid foods which are causing you problems.



Chemotherapy may make your mouth very sore, so that you need to have a soft diet for a while.


More information about eating problems

Find out about

Side effects from radiotherapy

Side effects from chemotherapy


Removing your voice box

Head and neck cancers

Sore mouth from cancer drugs

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am - 5pm, Monday to Friday)

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Updated: 25 February 2014