Up to 70% of people undergoing cancer treatments experience some degree of that “rock the boat” kind of queasiness that signals a stomach in distress. The symptoms will disappear once treatments stop, but for the duration it pays to try to keep a variety of nibbles on hand, particularly ones with proven anti-nausea benefits. What follows is a list of eight types of foods shown to help alleviate or minimize some of the nausea that can come with chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Some general rules of thumb for cooks: keep portions small, keep the room cool, and keep cooking odors to a minimum. Why? Too much food, strong food aromas, and hot temperatures can also trigger nausea.
These cookies combine ginger and lemon - 2 of our feel-good ingredients. Pair with a cooling snack like sorbet.
2 of 8Photo: Randy Mayor
A centuries-old folk remedy, ginger, is widely used to treat nausea despite the fact that no one really knows exactly how it works. Scientists suspect phytochemicals may play a role in quieting an unsettled stomach. But the how of things might not seem so important in light of studies that find taking ginger in tandem with anti-nausea meds can help wipe out, or at the very least minimize, nausea during chemotherapy. The protective dose: ½ to 1 gram powdered ginger, which is about the equivalent of 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon fresh.
A popular treatment for morning sickness, lemons, any way you take them, are great little nausea-blockers. Eat them in foods, suck on them, or just grab and sniff a cut up lemon wedge when the tummy goes for a spinning tea-cup ride. Also helpful: sucking on sour lemon candies. Why lemon? According to the National Cancer Institute, lemon, lime, and other tart-flavored foods are easy on the stomach.
Scientists know that nausea is controlled by the central nervous system and that many factors, like the dose of chemotherapy, the duration, the way it’s administered, and the anxiety level of a patient can all play a role in onset and severity. Food temperatures also appear to play a huge roll. Chilled foods like chef salads, sandwiches, popsicles, and sorbets seem to go down much easier than hot foods.
When nausea is a problem first thing in the morning, nibble on dry crackers and soda (keep them at your bedside to eat before you get up) say experts at the American Institute of Cancer Research. In fact, dry toast, dry salty crackers, dry cereals, or salted dry pretzels can all help quell nausea if nibbled on slowly throughout the day. The key word here is dry. Drinking liquids with foods, or with meals, can sometimes provoke nausea.
Strong aromas, bold spicy flavors, and lots of fat can all trigger nausea. So it’s best to stick with the plain stuff like rice, noodles, and mashed potatoes. Of course, that doesn’t have to mean deprivation. Most of these milder-flavored choices are the kind of comfort foods that make the tummy happy and satisfy the spirit as well.
Typically, spicy foods are on the taboo list for anyone experiencing nausea. But longtime Birmingham, Alabama oncologist, Luis F. Pineda, MD, thinks spicy chile peppers could prove the exception. “They contain a compound called capsaicin that moderates perception of pain,” explains Pineda. “But capsaicin also stimulates a neurotransmitter, substance P, that works on the brain much like an anti-nausea medication.” Pineda, a recent culinary school graduate, is eager to help cancer patients enjoy food again with recipes like Jalapeño Ice Cream and other dishes that feature small amounts of all kinds of chili peppers.
According to the American Cancer Society, there’s really not enough evidence to confirm that peppermint helps treat nausea or any of the side effects from cancer treatments. However, there are so many anecdotal reports that there is no harm in sipping mint tea or sucking on peppermint candies to see if they help settle your stomach. Ditto for recipes that use peppermint, particularly if they’re the kind of cool, creamy foods that the stomach finds easy to tolerate.