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Why diet is important

Information on why diet is an important part of coping with cancer and its treatments.

Eating and drinking a balanced diet plays an important part in coping with cancer and its treatments. Up to 4 out of 10 people (40%) have unintended weight loss when their cancer is diagnosed, or have problems with nutrition early on.

A good diet can help your body to:

  • cope with treatment side effects
  • handle the most beneficial dose of certain treatments
  • recover and heal faster
  • fight off infections
  • feel stronger, healthier and have more energy

If you are eating and drinking well, you are able to cope better and recover faster. This could improve your chance of survival.

You need a balanced diet, with plenty of calories, to keep your immune system working well. This can help you fight off infections, and can help your body fight the cancer.

Eating a balanced diet

It is important to include everything you need in your diet, including:

  • protein
  • carbohydrates
  • fat
  • vitamins and minerals
  • water
  • fibre

Not eating enough protein and calories is one of the main problems faced by people with cancer. You need extra protein for healing - for example, after surgery. 

Even in good health, roughly a third of all the calories you eat are used up by your immune system. So if you aren't eating enough food, you might be more likely to get infections and find it harder to fight them off if you get one.

Hospital food

It is not always easy to get used to the set meal times when staying in the hospital. You may feel sick, be away from the ward having tests or be asleep at meal times. This means that you may end up with a cold meal or nothing at all.

Nurses aren’t always available at meal times

Nurses might not be available to help at meal times.

If you are feeling very tired or ill, or have a drip in your arm, it can be difficult to cope with eating.

Recent research has shown that nurses are often too busy and unable to pay enough attention to whether patients actually eat their meals - for example, whether they are able to cut food up and eat it by themselves.

People who feel ill due to cancer or treatment need help and encouragement to eat and drink to help them recover faster.

Some hospitals serve food on a red tray for people who need help with eating. This helps make sure staff are aware if you need help - and that you get that help.

The Government has recently drawn up some plans for hospital mealtimes. They hope to improve patients’ chances of eating well during their hospital stay to help with recovery.

Protected mealtimes

Many hospitals now make sure that you don't have tests or see the doctor during mealtimes. This is called protected mealtimes.

The aim is to help encourage people to eat well and enjoy their meals. It also helps the nurses to monitor and know what you eat.  

The only people on the ward during mealtimes should be those helping you to eat.

Hospital food quality

Unfortunately, the quality of food in hospitals is not always good. There might be nothing you like, particularly if you really don't feel well.

None of this helps if you are having problems with eating and are losing weight.

You should be able to choose a vegetarian option or a meal that is suitable for any cultural or religious requirements you have.

Some people find that these options are better quality - possibly because they are individually prepared. You could try choosing vegetarian or Indian food from your hospital menu to see if you prefer it.

Solving many of these problems and improving food standards in hospitals will take time. But change will happen faster if more people let the hospital administration know that they are not happy with hospital food.

If you can't eat it, you or your relatives really should complain. In an ideal world, you should be able to have meals when you like and have a wide choice of foods.

Tips on eating better in hospital

  • Ask your nurse if your hospital provides a snack box - many do.
  • Ask relatives and friends to bring in snacks such as fruit, biscuits and dried fruit and nuts or nutritious drinks to have between meals.
  • If you feel well enough, go out to a local café or restaurant for a meal with relatives or friends. Or eat together in the hospital cafe, as long as you have permission from the ward staff.

Going out for meals or getting take away food does cost money and not everyone can afford to do this. But asking relatives to bring in food may be a cheaper way of getting something to eat that you like.

Some hospital wards provide a fridge and microwave for patients’ food and drinks so you can cook or heat food brought in for you.

Do check with your nurse before you have any food brought in - there can be hygiene and safety issues for the ward. You should also check with your nurse if you are on any sort of special diet.

Anxiety about eating

Problems with eating and drinking may cause you a lot of distress and anxiety if you or someone close to you has cancer. Naturally, if you are looking after someone who is ill, you want to feed them up.

But if you have cancer you might find it very difficult to eat enough. And you might feel you are disappointing your relatives and friends who are trying to help.

You need a healthy diet but there may be times when treatment side effects or your illness affect your appetite and you will lose weight. At these times, eat what you like when you feel like it, to make sure that you have as many calories as possible. If you feel like a big bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce, have one!

For general information and support contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
Last reviewed: 
24 Feb 2014
  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition)
    Editors: Lisa Dougherty and Sara Lister
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Nutrition and Cancer
    Edited by Clare Shaw
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance
    Quality standard for nutrition support in adults (QS24) – November 2012

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