Loss of Appetite

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed:

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 keep yourself well-nourished, to maintain your weight as much as possible, and to stay hydrated.

Some symptoms can contribute to loss of appetite, and you should call your provider if you have any of these symptoms or if your appetite does not get better:

  • Constipation.
  • Pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Depression and anxiety.

The following tips may be helpful during cancer treatment to maintain weight/nourishment, deal with loss of appetite, and to stay hydrated:

Eat high-calorie foods and beverages

  • Choose foods that will give you the most calories per serving.
  • Stay away from diet and low-fat foods.
  • Drink high-calorie beverages such as juices, fruit nectars, milk, cocoa, malted milk, shakes, smoothies, Ovaltine®, Carnation Instant Breakfast®, and nutritional drinks like Ensure® and Boost®. 

Eat small, frequent meals

  • Eat small meals throughout the day rather than 3 large meals. Try to eat 5 - 6 mini-meals.
  • Schedule your meals and snacks. Eat a few mouthfuls, even if you aren't hungry.
  • Serve small portions and use smaller dishes.

Snacks

  • Eat high-calorie snacks such as peanut butter, cheese, ice cream, puddings, nuts, trail mix, breakfast bars, cereal, yogurt, cottage cheese, deviled and hard-boiled 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 to nibble on.
  • Carry snacks with you when leaving your home.

Try something different 

  • 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. You may find new foods interesting and again, just keep trying as things can change from day to day.
  • 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 the meals when your appetite is best and when you are able to eat the most. Often, when going through treatment, your appetite gets less 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 such as casseroles, stews, macaroni and cheese, hearty and creamy soups, eggs, pancakes, waffles, french toast, mashed potatoes, pasta dishes, puddings, and ice cream.

Eat high-calorie foods first

  • At meals, eat the foods with the most calories first. Start with protein foods (meat, chicken, and fish). Then eat the starches (potatoes, pasta). Then eat the vegetables last.
  • Limit your fluid intake during meals to sips, as liquids will fill you up.
  • Drink your 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 to 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 on the internet, you can buy a calorie-counting book at most bookstores or find online trackers.

Other suggestions to help your appetite

  • Try to do some physical activity before meals. Stretch or take a stroll.
  • 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 dietitian. 

References

Macmillan Cancer Support. Eating Problems

National Cancer Institute. Appetite Loss. 2018. 

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