Loss of Appetite

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Content Contributor: Katherine Okonak, MSW, LSW
Last Reviewed: February 11, 2024

Loss of appetite is when you do not feel hungry or have no interest in eating. If this happens to you during cancer treatment, there are things you can do to improve your appetite. It is important, especially during treatment, to stay well-nourished, to maintain your weight as much as possible, and to stay hydrated.

Some symptoms may cause loss of appetite:

You should talk with your provider if you have a loss of appetite or any of these symptoms.

Tips to Help with Loss of Appetite 

There are many things you can do to help with your appetite. See what works best for you. 

Eat High-Calorie Foods and Beverages

  • Choose high-calorie foods.
  • Stay away from diet and low-fat foods.
  • Drink high-calorie beverages such as:
    • Juices and fruit nectars.
    • Milk, cocoa, and malted milk.
    • Shakes and smoothies.
    •  Ovaltine®, Carnation Instant Breakfast®, Ensure®, and Boost®. 

Eat Small, Frequent Meals

  • Try to eat 5-6 mini meals throughout the day.
  • Schedule your meals and snacks. When it’s time to eat, have a few mouthfuls, even if you aren't hungry.
  • Serve small portions and use smaller dishes.

Snacks

  • Eat high-calorie snacks such as:
    •  Nuts, trail mixes, and nut butters.
    • Dairy (cheese, ice cream, pudding, yogurt, cottage cheese).
    • Breakfast bars and cereal.
    • Eggs.
  • Make a smoothie with fruit and ice cream or yogurt. Greek yogurt is even higher in protein than regular yogurt.
  • Make a shake using ice cream and/or milk, Ovaltine®, Carnation Instant Breakfast®, and commercial nutritional drinks like Ensure® and Boost®.
  • Keep snacks nearby so you can easily grab something when you do feel hungry.
  • Carry snacks with you when leaving your home.

Keep Trying

  • Try different foods and drinks. Foods that you dislike one day may taste good another day.
  • Don’t be discouraged if foods you always loved don’t sound good to you right now. This is not uncommon during treatment. Try again in a few days, because your taste may continue to change.
  • If something sounds interesting, try it!
  • Go to a buffet and sample different foods.

Eat When You Have the Most Hunger

You may find it easier to make breakfast or lunch your "main" meal of the day. Focus on meals when your appetite is best and when you are able to eat the most. Often, when going through treatment, you get less hungry as the day goes on.

Soft Foods and Liquids

Soft and smooth foods are easier to eat and digest when you don't feel well. Try to choose soft foods that are also high in calories.

For example:

  • Casseroles.
  • Macaroni and cheese, and other pasta dishes.
  • Hearty and creamy soups and stews.
  • Eggs.
  • Pancakes, waffles, and french toast.
  • Mashed potatoes.
  • Puddings, ice cream.

Eat High-Calorie Foods First

  • At meals, eat foods with the most calories first. Start with protein (meat, chicken, and fish). Then eat starches (potatoes, pasta). Then eat vegetables last.
  • Limit your fluid intake during meals to sips, as liquids will fill you up.
  • Drink fluids between meals.
  • Eat hearty or creamy soups since broth-based soups do not have as many calories.

Count Calories

Write down everything you eat for a day and add up the calories. This will help you see how much you are eating. It will also help you identify foods that give you the most calories per serving. The calorie content of foods can be found on food labels. You can also find the calorie content of foods and online calorie trackers on the internet, or you can buy a calorie-counting book at most bookstores.

Other Suggestions to Help Your Appetite

  • Try to do some physical activity before meals. Stretch or take a walk.
  • Go to a restaurant for a change of scenery.
  • Have meals with family and friends.

Loss of appetite can affect your health. If you are having issues with your appetite, you should talk to your provider or a dietitian. 

References

Macmillan Cancer Support. Eating Problems. 2021.

National Cancer Institute. Appetite Loss. 2022.

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