Cancer Cancer Education Featured Food & nutrition

How to manage loss of appetite during cancer treatment

creamy soup

Loss of appetite is when we do not feel hungry or have any interest in food.

When you have cancer, there are a few reasons why you may not feel hungry. These include:

  • cancer itself
  • the side effects of cancer treatment
  • feeling depressed or anxious
  • being put off by the smells of cooking and food
  • effects of medications
  • digestive upset like constipation or diarrhea
  • feelings of pain and fatigue

We are going to look at a few ways to help make sure that you are getting enough food and nutrition, and how to best manage cancer-related loss of appetite.

It is very important to make sure that you continue to eat and drink often to try to keep your weight the same. This will help keep you strong enough for cancer treatments. Since it can be difficult to eat when you aren’t hungry, here are three key ways to make sure you are getting enough food and nutrition into your body:

  1. Getting enough protein
  2. Getting enough calories
  3. Making every bite and every sip count

Getting Enough Protein

Our bodies need protein to help with healing, especially when going through cancer treatments. To make sure you are getting enough protein, try to have some at each meal and snack.

Include foods like meat (chicken, beef, pork, etc), fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and legumes (beans, lentils, and peas).

Getting Enough Calories

One of the best ways to make sure you are getting enough nutrition is to add in extra calories. Eating small snacks or meals frequently, choosing fluids that are higher calorie and protein drink options, and choosing higher fat foods or adding fat to foods that you eat can help.

This can be done by drizzling oil over soup, putting butter or margarine on toast before adding another topping, choosing high fat dairy and adding it to congee, oatmeal, rice pudding, mashed potatoes, and making sure if having fruit or vegetables that they are dressed up with something (e.g. butter or gravy on steamed vegetables, dip fruit into high fat yogurt or nut butter).

Make Every Bite and Sip Count

With the cancer treatment, sometimes people find they are too tired to make foods and eating large meals can be challenging. Eating more frequent meals and having easy-to-eat snacks on hand are two ways to maximize how much you are eating throughout the day.

Some grab-and-go snack ideas are: prepackaged yogurts or puddings, cheese and crackers, hummus and vegetables or crackers, fruits, trail mix, nuts, mini cans of tuna or salmon.

If eating foods is difficult, another way to make sure you are getting all the calories and protein you need is to drink them. By having enough fluids, you are also keeping yourself hydrated. Remember that anything that melts into a fluid at room temperature counts too.

Some energy fluids are: milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, nutritional supplements, ice cream, popsicles, and cream-based soups.

If you have nutrition questions, speak to your nurse or oncologist who can connect you with more help. At Odette Cancer Centre, pop into the Nutrition Resource Centre to see the nutrition technician or book an appointment with a registered dietitian.

If you are experiencing other signs or symptoms, make sure to tell your nurse or doctor.


Written by Katie Brunke and Maxine Seider, dietetic interns in the Odette Cancer Centre Nutrition Program.


About the author

Patient & Family Education, Cancer

Blog posts from Patient & Family Education team at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre. Visit the Patient & Family Education website for more resources, workshops and information.

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