Managing Treatments

How the BRAT Diet Helps With Chemo-Related Nausea

Simple foods, like bananas and toast, are mainstays of the BRAT diet.

Though chemotherapy effectively manages cancer for many, it’s known for causing unpleasant side effects, like nausea and vomiting. Certain foods, like those included in the BRAT diet, can help control these types of symptoms.

Chemo and Diet-Related Side Effects

Chemotherapy uses certain medications, or combinations of medications, to quickly kill fast-growing cancer cells throughout the body. Chemo drugs affect normal, healthy cells that are fast-growing along with harmful cancer cells. Some of the fastest growing cells in your body are located within your digestive tract — so when chemotherapy kills these healthy cells, you may have digestive system side effects.

Nausea and vomiting are two of the most common side effects people undergoing chemotherapy experience. While these side effects are often blamed on the chemo drugs themselves, it’s becoming clear that diet plays a role in how frequently and how severely you may experience chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

A study published in Contemporary Oncology found that foods containing large amounts of oils, such as mayonnaise and certain salad dressings, caused significantly more nausea compared to foods with fewer oils. And other foods, like dairy products, certain fruits, processed meats and fatty fish caused more nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy.

So what foods are safe to consume if you’re undergoing chemotherapy and having problems with nausea or vomiting?

BRAT Diet Basics

The BRAT diet is a simple way to help manage gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms caused by chemotherapy. Because foods included in this diet are fat-free, your body digests them easily. These foods are also bland and don’t irritate your stomach or trigger nausea.

If you choose to follow this type of diet during your chemotherapy, you should stick to eating small meals that include one or more of these foods:

B — bananas

R — rice

A — applesauce

T — toast and tea

Be sure to drink decaffeinated tea, since it’s less likely to irritate your stomach.

Foods to Avoid

There are several foods to avoid during chemotherapy. These types of foods are harder to digest and are more likely to irritate your GI system. It’s also helpful to avoid eating foods with strong odors, since these can also cause nausea. In general, the following types of foods may cause further problems:

  • High-fat and fried meats
  • Fried eggs
  • Milkshakes
  • Pancakes, muffins, doughnuts, waffles
  • Fried potato products, like french fries and hash browns
  • Breaded, fried or creamed vegetables
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Spicy foods
  • Desserts like pie, cake and ice cream

Dealing with nausea from chemotherapy isn’t pleasant, but you can still find simple, easily digestible foods to eat that will help you get the nutrition you need to stay strong during treatment. Following the BRAT diet is a good way to begin controlling your symptoms, but be sure to tell your doctor if you plan on following this type of diet. If you continue to experience nausea or vomiting, talk to your doctor about exploring other options.

Nutrition plays an important role in reducing treatment-related side effects. UVA Cancer Center offers nutrition support services to help you learn more about the link between nutrition and cancer.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN