Staying healthy after cancer: eat a healthy diet

Healthy eating is something we hear about a lot today. It is one of the best choices you can make for your overall health. But sometimes it is hard to know what exactly is a healthy diet.
A healthy diet involves eating a variety of foods that provide the nutrients your body needs in the right amounts. These include protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. They are used by your body to give you energy, repair and build essential tissues, and help with lots of body functions.

A balanced diet

For most people, a balanced diet means taking in all the essential nutrients in the right amounts. That way your body can grow and work well. Some you need in large amounts and others in small amounts. The food pyramid shows how much you need of different types of foods.
For your diet to be well balanced, you must eat fruit and vegetables. In fact, you should include all the food groups in the food pyramid in the right amounts. See page 8 of our Diet and Cancer booklet for more details about the food pyramid. The following table also has basic information on what makes up a balanced diet.
* This amount may change in special diets
For some people who have had cancer, a balanced diet may not be suitable. For example, if you have lost a lot of weight. In this case, you may get different advice from your dietitian.

Some healthy eating guidelines

  • Limit foods and drinks such as cakes, sweets, biscuits and soft drinks as these are high in fat, sugar and salt.
  • Prepare and cook your meals using fresh ingredients. Avoid ready meals and takeaways in general.
  • Always read the nutrition label: check for high levels of fat, sugar and salt. Looking carefully at food labels can help you to make better choices. Safefood has produced this booklet of guidelines to help you.
  • Eat a variety of 5 or more of different coloured fruit and vegetables every day.
  • Eat wholegrain breads, high fibre cereals, potatoes, wholewheat pasta and brown rice to satisfy hunger and fuel your body.
  • Choose healthier cooking methods, like steaming, grilling, baking, roasting and stir-frying instead of frying foods.
  • Eat more fish, especially oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon, at least once a week.
  • Choose lower-fat milks, low-fat yoghurts and yoghurt drinks and reduced-fat cheese.
  • Choose vegetable oils high in monounsaturated fats such as rapeseed or olive oil.
  • Drink about 8‒10 glasses of fluid every day. Water is best.
  • Enjoy 3 meals a day sitting at a table, away from the TV, phone or computer screen. Eat slowly and chew your food properly.
  • Make time for breakfast – you are more likely to be a healthy weight.
  • Drink alcohol sensibly within recommended limits and preferably with meals.
  • If you eat a healthy balanced diet, there is no need to take food supplements, unless advised by your doctor.

See our page on the 5 fundamentals of healthy eating for lots more information and top tips for eating your way to good health. 

We also have more information on the link between diet and cancer

Building yourself up after cancer treatment

If you have lost weight during your cancer treatment, you may need to build yourself up. Our Diet and Cancer booklet has detailed information on increasing the amount of energy and protein in your diet along with sample meal plans. You can view the booklet online or call the Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 to ask for a copy. 
Tips to build yourself up after cancer treatment:
  • Make the most of your appetite when it is good.
  • Take nourishing snacks high in calories and full of protein.
  • Take snacks about every 2–3 hours. Do not skip meals.
  • Add calories to food. See our Diet and Cancer booklet for suggestions.
  • Avoid drinking liquids before meals.
  • Take only small sips at mealtimes, as fluids may make you full.
  • Do not put too much food on your plate. It can be offputting if your appetite is small.
  • Try nutritional supplements when you find it hard to eat food.
  • Keep snacks handy. Try cheese and crackers, sandwiches, muffins or scones.
  • Take special high-calorie drinks to help keep your strength up. Your doctor can give you a prescription for these drinks.
  • Encourage your family to eat together and make mealtimes relaxing and enjoyable

Losing weight after cancer treatment

Some weight gain during treatment may be caused by medications like steroids. Once the steroids are stopped, you will have less of an appetite and lose any weight gained.
Tips for losing weight after cancer treatment:
  • Eat lots of fruit and vegetables. Juice your vegetables if you prefer.
  • Eat wholegrain starchy foods like brown bread, pasta, potatoes (with skins), high-fibre breakfast cereals and brown rice, so you feel full. Try to choose the high-fibre varieties.
  • Choose lean meat (beef or pork without the fat, skinless chicken).
  • Take low-fat dairy products like low-fat milk or diet yoghurt.
  • Avoid sweets, biscuits and cakes, and snacks between meals.
  • Avoid fried foods. Grill or steam your food instead.
  • Get more exercise, if possible.
  • Talk to your dietitian if you are worried about the amount of weight gained.
  • Don’t diet without getting the advice of your doctor or nurse first.
Some weight gain during hormone therapy or chemotherapy may be caused by extra fluid in your body. This holding on to extra water is known as fluid retention or oedema.
  • Limit the amount of salt you take, if advised by your doctor or nurse.
  • Only take water pills (diuretics) prescribed by your doctor.


We now know that drinking alcohol increases your risk of some cancers. Even a small amount of alcohol can increase your risk of cancer. It’s not just people who have a ‘drinking problem’ who are affected. The more you drink, the higher your risk. 
All types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer, including red wine. It is the alcohol itself that does the damage. It does not matter if it is in the form of beer, wine or spirits. There is no 'safe' level of alcohol drinking, but the risk of cancer is lower the less alcohol you drink. You can limit your risk by drinking no more than one standard drink a day if you are a woman and two standard drinks per day if you are a man. 

Find out more about the link between alcohol and cancer.  You can also download our booklet Alcohol, Cancer and Your Health.

A standard drink is:
  • ½ pint of beer, lager, cider or stout
  • 1 measure of spirits                                                       
  • A small glass of wine

It is also important to give your body a break and have at least 2 alcohol-free days every week.

On the next page you can find out more about getting fit and being physically active.

Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015