There are many reasons a patient may need to follow a bland diet. It is typically prescribed in the initial weeks after stomach or intestinal surgery, or more typically if you are suffering from stomach ulcers, or from other gastric upsets like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas or heartburn, many of which can be side effects of chemo. Bland foods are soft, not very spicy and low in fat and fiber. It is best to consume small, frequent meals while following this diet. We recommend 4-6 small portion meals per day.
When patients are told they must follow a bland diet, the restrictive nature of the food list can be leave them wondering if they will ever enjoy their food again. Even the name ‘Bland Diet’ inspires dread, as you expect to be eating a lot of ‘blah’ tasteless foods. While it is true that some foods must be avoided on this diet, the good news is there are lots of tasty items you can have which are both nutritious and enjoyable.
As with any dietary change, the secret lies in being prepared. Here are some of the bland diet heroes which are featured in many of our recipes. If you have these on hand, you can always create a fabulous dish which will be anything but blah!
The fiber from grains can be both beneficial and detrimental to a patient undergoing cancer treatment. While we usually recommend increasing your fiber intake, during times of gastric upset this is not always advisable. When following a bland diet keep your pantry stocked up with low fiber ‘white’ grains. These include white flour, white pastas and regular couscous, white rice and rice noodles – are all excellent low-fiber sources of carbohydrate which won’t irritate your gut. Keep a stock of refined cereals like cream of wheat, farina and cornflakes for quick meal or snack options. Pass on the whole wheat bread family too. Look for good quality white breads, sourdough is our favorite.
Fruits and Vegetables
While following the bland diet, fresh, raw fruits and veggies can be hard to digest. Steaming, poaching or baking them can provide nutrition that’s easier on the system. To minimize the amount of fiber you’re getting, before cooking peel all fresh fruits and veggies and remove any small seeds. Starchy veg like white potatoes and sweet potatoes are great to have on hand as they store well and can be used in a variety of dishes that provide comfort – just remember to peel them. Frozen fruits and veggies are an easy nutritious standby. They cook quickly, and frozen fruits make great compotes that keep well in the fridge. However you will need to avoid frozen raspberries and strawberries unless you strain them once they’re cooked to remove their seeds. Canned vegetables are another easily digested option – especially staples such as carrots, green beans and peas. Canned applesauce and fruits in water such as fruit cocktail or peaches work well too – try eating them with plain yogurt or added to a smoothie for a sweet treat. A heads-up that applesauce is very easy to make at home, keeps well and will have a lot less added sugar than store bought.
Fridge & Freezer Foods
Lean proteins like fish or poultry are suitable for the bland diet, so make sure to keep these in your freezer for fast high-protein meals. As we noted above, frozen fruits and vegetables are also great quick cooking standbys. In the fridge, eggs are another nutritious bland-diet favorite as they are naturally low fat, high protein and fiber free. For the vegan, tofu offers high quality low fiber vegetable protein. When buying dairy, choose low-fat or fat free to minimize risks of adverse effects. Unsweetened milk alternatives such as soy or other types of nut milks are also suitable.
Fats: Although high fat foods can cause gastric issues, small amounts of extra virgin olive oil can be used to add both healthy monounsaturated fats and delicious flavor to your food. Coconut oil can also be used. Coconut oil is high in MCT fats which are more easily absorbed in the body than other fats, but unlike olive oil it is a saturated fat that should be used very sparingly.
Spices: While very ‘hot’ spices are not recommended on the bland diet, there are still many herbs and sweet spices you can use to add flavor. Stock up on fresh whole sweet spices like ginger root, cinnamon stick, nutmeg, cloves and star anise; on dried herbs like rosemary, thyme, fennel seed, bay leaves; and where you can on fresh herbs like parsley, basil, mint, and dill. Onions and garlic should be avoided unless cooked whole and removed before eating. If tolerated, leeks or scallions can be used in small amounts to add flavor, however a pinch of the South Asian spice asafetida (aka ‘hing’) can safely be used to add onion/garlicky flavor to soups, veggies and stews. And last but not least, let’s not forget good old sea salt. It will help bring out the flavor in your food without upsetting your system.
Anyone on a bland diet should avoid alcohol and caffeine as they are gastric stimulants, which means they can increase the frequency of diarrhea or cause stomach cramping, as can drinks (and foods) sweetened with sugar substitutes such as sorbitol and all other sugar substitutes ending in ‘ol’. Instead, choose delicious fruit and herbal teas which are soothing and will provide you with the same warm pick-me-up, and if you need to, sweeten them with a touch of honey or sugar. Fennel seed, fresh ginger root, lemon zest and mint leaves can all be used to make soothing digestive teas. Check out this video to see how.
Once you have the basics in place, you will find the bland diet a breeze. Check out our bland diet recipes for inspiration- we have breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks covered, so get cooking!