Cancer and Loss of Appetite: What Patients Can Do

8 ways to manage cancer-related appetite changes

Concept photo for article on cancer and appetite.

8 ways to manage cancer-related appetite changes

When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer or are going through treatment, loss of appetite is a common issue. Most of the time it’s due to the cancer itself and its treatment.

Cancer-related fatigue, which is one of the most common side effects of cancer and its treatments, may leave you feeling too tired or weak to eat properly and that can lead to nutrition problems.

“Not eating enough when you’re undergoing cancer treatment can result in weight loss and decreased muscle mass, both of which may lead to even more fatigue and make it harder to tolerate treatment,” says Farah Nasraty, MD, an oncologist and hematologist at Scripps Cancer Center and Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo. “Getting adequate nutrition is vital to maintain your strength, feel your best and get the most from your treatment.”


Even though you may not have much of an appetite, there are things you can do to make it easier to maintain a healthy diet during cancer treatment.

Try these tips to help you get the vitamins and nutrients your body needs:

1. Eat several small meals, in place of three large meals

Eat four to six small high-protein and high-calorie meals and snacks a day to provide constant energy and fuel.

Try setting an alarm as a reminder to eat every two to three hours. Make sure to include protein with every meal and snack. High-protein foods include eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, beans, lentils, nut butters, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and milk. 


To help increase calories:

  • Use avocado, oil, mayonnaise, butter, salad dressing, sauces, condiments, honey and peanut/nut butter freely.
  • Choose whole-fat dairy products instead of low or non-fat, such as yogurt, pudding, ice cream, cream cheese and sour cream.
  • Add oil, cheese, butter or margarine to bread, potatoes, soups, hot cereals and vegetables.

2. Buy foods that are easy to prepare or cook

Examples include frozen or packaged fruits and vegetables, pre-cooked meats, canned beans or soups, and ready-to-eat fresh or frozen meals. Freeze extra portions to eat later when you don’t feel like cooking.

3. Take snacks with you when you got out

Keep snacks on hand and take them with you when you are out of the house.

“Choose things that are easy to take with you and don’t need to be refrigerated,” says Alison Meagher, a registered oncology nutritionist with Scripps Cancer Center. “Good options include trail mix, dried fruit, bars, crackers, pretzels, nut butter, string cheese, pudding, muffins and nutrition drinks.”

4. Stay hydrated

Dehydration can cause or worsen fatigue. Aim to drink at least 8 cups (64 oz.) of water a day. Plus, eat foods that contain fluid, such as soup, gelatin, ice cream, frozen yogurt and frozen popsicles.

5. Try smoothies and shakes to get nutrition

If drinking is more appealing than eating, use smoothies and shakes to get the nutrition you need.

Use Greek yogurt, milk or nutritional supplement drinks for extra calories and protein and add dry milk powder or protein powder.

6. Make adjustments to changes in taste, smell

Cancer can change how you taste food. Some foods might seem bitter, metallic, too sweet, too salty, or have no taste. There are ways to handle these changes in taste and smell.

If food tastes too sweet, try eating more vegetables instead of sweet fruits. If food tastes too salty, choose low-sodium or no-salt foods.

It’s a good idea not to eat your favorite foods on the day you get chemotherapy or other treatments. This can help prevent you from starting to dislike these foods.

7. Make meals enjoyable in a relaxed, pleasant atmosphere

Eat your favorite foods with friends and family. Have meals outside in good weather. Listen to your favorite music or watch your favorite television show or movie while you eat.

8. Let people help you

Allow friends, family, and your support system to cook for you or help you prepare meals and snacks. Use curbside or home delivery services for groceries and meals.


“It’s perfectly normal to have a decreased appetite after your cancer treatments,” says Meagher. “Be kind to yourself, eat and drink what you can and know that you can make up the nutrients when you feel better.”

Oncology dietitians can help you manage your nutrition plan. These specialists work closely with cancer teams and are available to discuss any nutritional concern with patients.

When to call your cancer team

The American Cancer Society recommends contacting your cancer care team if you:

  • Feel nauseated and can’t eat for a day or more
  • Lose three pounds or more in a week or less
  • Feel nauseated and can’t eat for a day or more
  • Don’t urinate for an entire day or don’t have a bowel movement for two or more days
  • Vomit for more than 24 hours
  • Can’t drink or keep liquids down
  • Have pain when eating

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