Cancer treatments and medicines can cause your bowels to move much more often and become very loose. Three or more loose or watery stools a day is called diarrhea. Uncontrolled diarrhea can lead to fluid loss (dehydration), weight loss, poor appetite, and weakness.
Avoid high-fiber foods, which might make diarrhea worse. These include nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), dried fruits, and raw fruits and vegetables. You should avoid high-fat foods, like fried and greasy foods, too, because they can also make diarrhea worse. After stomach or bowel surgery, some people may be sensitive to very sweet or high-carbohydrate foods as well. Stay away from gassy foods and carbonated drinks, too. Be sure to sip fluids during the day to prevent dehydration. Once the diarrhea has stopped, slowly start eating foods with fiber.
What to do
- Drink plenty of mild, clear, non-carbonated liquids during the day. Drink liquids at room temperature. This may be easier to take than very hot or cold drinks.
- Eat small, frequent meals and snacks during the day.
- Avoid greasy, fried, spicy, or very sweet foods.
- Limit milk or milk products to 2 cups a day. Yogurt and buttermilk are OK.
- Avoid drinks and foods that cause gas, like carbonated drinks, gas-forming vegetables, and chewing gum. (A list of foods that might cause gas is in the section on constipation.) Allow carbonated drinks to become slightly “flat” before drinking by pouring them into a glass and letting them sit at least 10 minutes.
- Drink and eat high-sodium (salt) foods like broths, soups, sports drinks, crackers, and pretzels.
- Drink and eat high-potassium foods like fruit juices and nectars, sports drinks, potatoes with the skin, and bananas.
- Increase soluble-fiber foods like applesauce, bananas, canned peaches and pears, oats or oatmeal, and sweet potatoes.
- Drink at least 1 cup of liquid after each loose bowel movement. Try water, sports drinks, or bouillon.
- Do not chew sugar-free gum or eat candies and desserts made with sugar alcohol (i.e., sorbitol, mannitol, or xylitol).
- Call your cancer care team if diarrhea continues or increases, or if your stools have an unusual odor or color.
What to eat or not eat when you have diarrhea*
|Eat||Foods that may cause problems|
Baked or broiled beef, pork, chicken, turkey, veal, fish
Eggs, buttermilk, cheese, yogurt
Fried meats, high-fat cuts of meats, meats with gristle
Dairy products other than buttermilk or yogurt
|Breads, cereals, rice, and pasta||
Bread, rolls, and pasta made from refined, white flour; converted or instant rice
Refined cereals like farina, Cream of Wheat, Cream of Rice, oatmeal, cornflakes
Pancakes, waffles, cornbread, muffins, graham crackers
Whole-grain breads and cereals like whole wheat, oat, and rye; bran
|Fruits and vegetables||
Soups made with vegetables listed here: cooked asparagus tips, beets, carrots, peeled zucchini, mushrooms, celery
Tomato paste, tomato puree, tomato sauce
Baked potato without skin
Canned, frozen, or fresh fruit
Fresh, unpeeled fruit; pears; melon
All other vegetables
|Drinks, desserts, and other foods||
Mayonnaise, salad dressing, vegetable oil
Cake, cookies, flavored gelatin desserts, sherbet
Salt, pepper, spices, and gravy as tolerated
Desserts with nuts
Coconut, dried fruit
Foods with a lot of pepper, chili seasoning, or taco seasoning; hot sauces
*Adapted from Eldridge B, and Hamilton KK, Editors, Management of Nutrition Impact Symptoms in Cancer and Educational Handouts. Chicago, IL: American Dietetic Association; 2004.
- Benefits of good nutrition during cancer treatment
- Cancer and cancer treatment affect nutrition
- Before treatment begins
- Once treatment starts
- Managing eating problems caused by surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy
- For people with weakened immune systems
- How to cope with common eating problems
- Appetite changes
- Mouth dryness or thick saliva
- Mouth or throat pain or sores
- Swallowing problems
- Taste and smell changes
- Weight gain
- Nutrition after treatment ends
- To learn more
- Recipes to try during cancer treatment