What Not to Eat During Chemo

Find Out Why to Avoid These Foods During Chemo

poached egg on bread
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When you're going through chemotherapy --and even after-- your formerly favorite comfort foods may not taste the same. Your beloved chocolate may take on a metallic aftertaste, or the childhood staple of mac-n-cheese can start to taste like wallpaper paste. It's an unfortunate side effect of some chemotherapy drugs. They can affect your taste buds in the oddest ways -- you might even develop a taste for foods you never used to enjoy.

At the same time, chemotherapy also suppresses your immune system, which may impact what you should and should not eat until your immune function is back to its full potential.

Certain foods – think raw or undercooked – can actually make you sick. If your immune system is already tied up fighting on other fronts, the sickness can become more serious than a case of diarrhea or a bellyache. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 48 million Americans suffer food borne illnesses annually. If your immune system is weakened, the chance of severe illness, hospitalization and even death increases with one of these illnesses.

Foods to Avoid

Hopefully, your oncologist or oncology nurse has already informed you of the foods to avoid during chemotherapy, including:

  • Unpasteurized dairy and undercooked eggs – If it's got a runny yolk, avoid it. If it comes straight from the udder, avoid it.
  • Raw seafood – Oysters, sushi and other kinds of raw or undercooked seafood is off the menu for now.
  • Unwashed fresh fruits and vegetables – even the "ready-to-eat" kind must be carefully washed and peeled again, if possible.
  • Raw honey and associated products – for the same reason you don’t feed it to babies; raw honey products can carry the botulism toxin and make you ill
  • Moldy cheeses – think brie and blue cheese
  • Foods out of dented cans – the dents can actually compromise the integrity of the contents and allow bacteria to form
  • Raw nuts and fresh-made nut butters

Don't forget to exclude foods made with the above products, such as raw eggs in hollandaise sauce, Caesar salad dressing or homemade mayonnaise. When in doubt, talk to your physician before eating the food in question.

Eating Out

Especially if you are immunocompromised, eating out may have to take a hiatus for now. Think about how many hands the restaurant-prepared food you eat travels through. There's the warehouse and transport to the restaurant, the unpacking and storing in the facility, the people who set up and prep the food to be cooked, the chef, the waitress and so on. Although a virtual buffet of germs may not actually be present on your food, is it worth the risk?

Speaking of buffets, they should be avoided during and shortly after your chemotherapy, when your body has the least chance of fighting off common germs.

Sneeze-shields (those little Plexiglas or glass dividers making you feel safe from sprayed sneezes) are not foolproof, nor is there any guarantee that patrons aren’t revisiting the buffet with used plates, bowls and utensils. Similarly, avoid any delicatessen or self-serve salad bars – opt instead to purchase the meat, lettuce and toppings and clean them yourself at home.

Food Prep

We've all heard the adage that we are supposed to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold – but these are the specifics. Perishable foods should not be left out for protracted munching. After any meal or snack is served, the food should be packaged safely and refrigerated within at least two hours of preparation.

  • Cold foods must be kept at or less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Hot foods must be kept at or hotter than 140 degrees Fahrenheit

It's okay – and actually encouraged – to use multiple spoons, cutting and preparation surfaces, and pans while cooking. You don't want to contaminate the bacon by stirring it with the same fork used to whip your raw eggs, for example. Be sure to use a cutting surface that is not made of wood or another permeable surface while chopping or preparing raw meats – wood can harbor bacteria despite how well you wash it.

If you love a nice, blood red center on your beef, consider swapping it for some well-cooked poultry – at least until your chemotherapy is over. Whatever meat you choose, make sure it is cooked through. The best way to do this is not by "eyeballing it" or depending on a recipe's cook time; use a meat thermometer to ascertain if your meat is thoroughly cooked and remember:

  • Poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees at the thickest part
  • Red meat should be cooked to 160 degrees at the thickest part
  • Reheated casseroles and leftovers should be heated to 165 degrees.

Be sure your meat thermometer is not placed too shallow and it is not touching the bone if there is one, as both mistakes could cause a false reading.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families. Accessed February 16, 2013.

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. (n.d.). What Can Be Done About Side Effects?. Accessed February 18, 2013.

United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Food Safety for Persons with Chronic Illnesses. Accessed February 22, 2013.

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