How to deal with loss of appetite during cancer treatment

June 20, 2023 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Eating healthy can be difficult, especially when you are going through cancer and cancer treatments.

Your taste buds can change, your appetite may decrease and you may feel queasy as a result of your cancer treatment.

Your diet plays a key role in how you feel and deal with treatments. Your body needs the nutrients found in a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, healthy grains and fats to fight infection and heal after treatment.

Eating well during cancer treatments can help you:

  • Feel stronger and have more energy
  • Maintain your weight and body’s store of nutrients
  • Better tolerate treatment-related side effects
  • Lower your risk of infection
  • Heal and recover faster

The way you eat during and after cancer treatments may be different than how you have eaten in the past. You may find that you have less appetite than other days or that you do not tolerate certain foods that you used to eat regularly.

When your appetite is low, ask your doctor about the following tips to stay nourished:

  • Eat 5-6 small meals a day and snack whenever you are hungry.
  • Don’t limit how much you eat. Determine which times of day you are hungry and eat at those times.
  • Eat nutritious snacks that are high in calories and protein, including dried fruits, nuts and nut butters, Greek yogurts, cheeses, eggs, milkshakes, ice cream, cereal, pudding, and protein bars or granola bars.
  • Keep your favorite foods on hand for snacking.
  • Increase the calories and protein in foods by adding sauces, gravy, butter, cheese, sour cream, half and half, whipped cream, and nuts or nut butters.
  • Drink larger amounts of calorie-containing fluids between meals, rather than with meals, so you won’t feel full too quickly.
  • Add spices and condiments to make foods more appealing.
  • Try sucking on hard candy such as mints or lemon drops before eating a meal, or using plastic forks and knives instead of your regular silverware if you have changes in taste, such as a metallic taste in your mouth.
  • If you are able, go for a short walk before a meal. Sometimes a short walk before a meal can help you feel hungry.
  • Make eating enjoyable. Try setting the table with nice dishes, eating with someone or watching TV as you eat.

Some appetite loss is normal with cancer treatments. The American Cancer Society offers tips for patients and caregivers to help navigate changes in appetite. Contact your cancer care team if:

  • You have been feeling nauseated for more than a day
  • You have lost more than three pounds
  • You have pain when eating
  • You haven’t urinated for more than a day and haven’t had a bowel movement for two or more days
  • You have been vomiting for more than 24 hours
  • You cannot keep down liquids

The American Cancer Society recommends trying to maintain a diet that includes a good balance of healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates, water, vitamins and minerals and notes that each aspect plays a role:

  • Proteins such as lean meats, poultry, fish, nuts, nut butter, dried beans, peas, lentils, eggs or low-fat dairy products help heal tissue after treatment or surgery and helps fight infection.
  • Healthy fats, such as olive or flaxseed oils, help give you energy.
  • Carbohydrates are your body’s main source for energy. Try to focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Water keeps you hydrated. Try to drink eight glasses of fluid per day. You may need more fluid if you are vomiting or have diarrhea. Keep in mind that all sources of liquid, including shakes or soups, count toward your overall fluid intake.
  • Vitamins and minerals aid your body in its natural functions. Most vitamins and minerals are found in everyday foods but can also be taken in pill form. If you have been eating less, be sure to talk to your doctor to see if you need to take any dietary supplements.

Be sure to talk to your cancer team and loved ones about your diet and how it has changed and ask for help when it is needed. 

Cancer is a journey that no one expects to take. The cancer experts at Edward-Elmhurst Health will partner with you every step of the way.

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