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Why you may need a soft diet

Information about which cancers and treatments make it likely you need a soft diet.

The process of chewing and swallowing is 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.

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 will help 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'.

The effects of treatments on chewing and swallowing

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
  • size of the tumour
  • 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

The effects of surgery to your mouth

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.

Radiotherapy

The effects of radiotherapy to the head and neck

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

These effects can mean you have difficulty chewing and swallowing and mean that you eat less. Your doctor might give you painkillers that you can take an hour or so before you eat.

Coming to terms with swallowing or chewing problems

Meal times may no longer be enjoyable and you might want to eat alone because you find it embarrassing to eat and drink in front of people. A soft diet can 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.

Loss of taste

If you have a major course of radiotherapy to your mouth, you may find your sense of taste is poor afterwards. Here are some suggestions to make your food more tasty:

  • add garlic, herbs and sauces
  • 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 so consider lemons, limes, oranges and gooseberries, lemon yoghurt, lemon cheesecake, orange mousse, lemon sorbet and stewed gooseberries (you might need to avoid these if you have a sore mouth)

It really is a case of 'try it and see' to find what works for you.

Chemotherapy

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

Last reviewed: 
25 Feb 2014
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)
    Twycross R, Wilcock A and Toller S
    Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd, 2009

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

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