Making changes to your diet

You may decide to make small or big changes to your diet. It may take time to find healthy foods that you like, or a diet that works for you.

How can I make changes to my diet?

It is not always easy to make changes to your lifestyle. It can be more difficult when you also have cancer and cancer treatment to cope with.

Some people eat more when life is stressful. This is called comfort eating. Others are so busy that they do not have time to look for healthier options when food shopping. It can sometimes be easier to choose ready meals. For some people, the price of food is an issue.

You may want to make gradual changes to your diet when you feel ready, and at a budget you can afford. You could start by writing down what you eat for a few weeks, and compare it with our information about healthy eating. Then you can see if you need to make changes. You can set yourself small, realistic goals and decide how you will achieve them. For example, you could:

  • look at the labels of food and choose a healthier option
  • try swapping chocolate for a small portion of dried fruit and nuts
  • add fresh or stewed fruit to cereal or porridge.

You can set more goals over time. Keep a record of your progress and how you feel physically and emotionally. You may decide to make small or big changes to your diet. It may take time to find healthy foods that you like, or a diet that works for you.

Before making changes to your diet, it can help to talk to a dietitian, your GP or a specialist nurse. This may also be useful if you have special dietary requirements or medical needs. A dietitian can help you make changes. They can also advise you about any other dietary problems you might have during or after cancer treatment.

Making changes can be enjoyable. It can help to try different foods. You may find new foods that you have not tried before. Trying different foods can stop you getting bored. This can help motivate you to continue with a healthy diet in the long term.

Healthy eating tips

These tips will help you make healthy decisions when choosing or cooking your food. This will help you keep to a healthy weight or lose weight if you need to. Tell your family and friends what you are doing, so they can support you.

Change your habits

Try to plan what you are going to eat for the week. This means you will be less likely to buy unhealthy food at the last minute. We have a food and activity planner that you may find helpful.

Start the day with a healthy breakfast. This may help you to stop eating unhealthy snacks in the morning.

Try to eat meals at regular times. This will help your body get used to a routine of when you eat. This may mean you are less likely to snack between meals.

Make sure you drink plenty of fluids. Sometimes we mistake being thirsty for being hungry. Try to have a glass of water before meals.

Turn off the TV and put down mobile phones or other devices during meals. You are less likely to eat more than you need if you concentrate on your meal.

Change how much you eat

The amount you eat is just as important as what you eat. If you eat big portions, you are more likely to gain weight. If you want to lose weight, there are things you can do to help you eat smaller portions:

  • Use a smaller dinner plate. Bigger plates need more food to fill them.
  • Choose a healthy starter, such as low-fat soup, melon or salad.
  • Eat slowly and avoid having second helpings. It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you are full. Try to wait a while before deciding whether you want more.
  • Avoid snacking straight from a bag or packet. Put the amount of food you want to eat on a plate.

Fast foods and eating out

Fast food is usually high in calories and fat. If you eat a lot of fast food, you could try to cut down.

Try to plan your healthy meals and snacks in advance. If you do not plan, you may end up buying takeaway food when you are hungry. 

Even when you have changed to a healthier way of eating, there may be times when you want to be more relaxed about it. You can still enjoy treats or meals out with family or friends. If you have a takeaway or eat out, try to follow these tips:

  • Look for the healthier options on the menu. These may be labelled as a ‘light’ option. 
  • Have a boiled or jacket potato instead of chips. Or ask for boiled rice instead of fried rice.
  • Choose baked options rather than fried.
  • Try to avoid bread or nibbles before the starter or main course.
  • Ask for a standard or smaller portion size, or order a starter as a main course. 
  • You could share a main course with someone.
  • Choose tomato-based sauces with vegetables rather than creamy sauces.
  • Order vegetables or a side salad to add to your meal.
  • After you finish your main course, wait a while before you decide whether to order a dessert. 
  • If you order dessert, choose one that is fruit-based. Ask for low-fat, low-sugar yoghurt instead of ice cream or cream.

Eating and socialising

Food gives us what we need to keep our bodies healthy and energised. But it is also an important part of our social lives. This may be spending time with family and friends at barbecues, or celebrating an event with treats like cakes.

Even when you have successfully changed to a healthier balanced diet, you may not always feel like following it strictly. This is normal. Everyone enjoys having an occasional treat or meal out. Try having a smaller portion than you would normally. 

Healthy menu ideas

Here are some ideas for healthy meals and snacks. You can use our food and activity planner to help plan your meals.

Breakfast

  • Low-sugar, wholegrain cereal, muesli or porridge. Have this with skimmed, 1%, or semi-skimmed milk, or an unsweetened, fortified plant-based milk such as almond milk.
  • Fresh fruit or berries with low-fat or dairy-free yoghurt.
  • A boiled, poached or scrambled egg with a slice of wholemeal toast. Or you could have scrambled tofu with toast.
  • A bagel with low-fat cream cheese, nut butter or mashed banana.
  • A homemade smoothie, made from fruit, vegetables and low-fat yoghurt or an unsweetened plant-based milk.
  • Vegetarian or vegan sausages with a grilled tomato and mushrooms.
  • A grilled breakfast instead of a fry-up.

Lunch

  • Homemade vegetable or lentil soup with a wholemeal bread roll.
  • Grilled chicken salad.
  • A poached or scrambled egg on a slice of wholemeal toast.
  • An omelette with a side salad.
  • A baked potato with tinned tuna (in spring water), sweetcorn or low-fat coleslaw.
  • A wholemeal wrap with reduced-fat hummus and salad.
  • Pilchards, sardines, mackerel or baked beans on toast.
  • A wholemeal bread sandwich or pitta bread with egg or cold meat, served with salad.
  • Falafel and salad with a flatbread.

Dinner

  • Vegetable curry or chilli with boiled brown rice.
  • Wholegrain pasta with a low-fat sauce, vegetables and a side salad.
  • Grilled or baked fish, with boiled or baked potatoes and vegetables.
  • A vegetarian or vegan burger with vegetables or salad.
  • Vegetable, turkey or tofu stir-fry with noodles.
  • Lean beef casserole with potatoes and vegetables.
  • Grilled chicken with vegetables and potatoes. 
  • Reduced-fat mince and potatoes. You could replace half the mince with vegetables or lentils.

Snacks

  • Fresh fruit.
  • Seeds, mixed nuts and berries. It can be cheaper to buy these in bulk, from a supermarket or health food shop.
  • Oatcakes with cherry tomatoes.
  • Fresh carrot, cucumber or celery sticks, dipped into a low-fat dip such as hummus or salsa.
  • A handful of raisins or other dried fruit.
  • Plain rice cakes with reduced-fat cheese.
  • Homemade plain popcorn.
  • Low-fat fruit yoghurt.

More recipe ideas

We have lots of healthy recipes for people affected by cancer, including soft food diet recipes.

The World Cancer Research Fund also has healthy recipes from all over the world.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet does not mean you have to buy expensive foods. The NHS has useful tips on how to eat well for less.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our healthy eating information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Fang X et al. Quantitative association between body mass index and the risk of cancer: A global Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. International Journal of Cancer. 2018 Oct 1;143(7):1595-1603.

    British Nutrition Foundation website www.nutrition.org.uk (accessed December 2019).

    Bhaskaran K et al. Body-mass index and risk of 22 specific cancers: a population-based cohort study of 5·24 million UK adults. The Lancet, August 2014..

    The Eatwell Guide: Helping you eat a healthy, balanced diet, Food Standard Scotland, October 2019.



  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.