Cancer Care: How to Eat When You Don’t Want To

Seven tips to help overcome appetite loss after a cancer diagnosis

Concept photo for article on cancer and appetite.

Seven tips to help overcome appetite loss after a cancer diagnosis

When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer or are going through treatment, loss of appetite is a common issue. There are many reasons for this, including the emotional weight of the diagnosis, possible side effects from treatment, nausea and vomiting, pain, or changes in taste or smell. 


In addition, cancer-related fatigue may leave you feeling too tired or weak to eat properly. Cancer-related fatigue is described as feeling tired, weak, exhausted or lacking energy and is the most common side effect of cancer.


“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 MD Anderson Cancer Center. “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 eight tips to help your body get the vitamins and nutrients you need:

1. Eat high-protein, high-calorie meals for energy and fuel

Eat four to six small high-protein and high-calorie meals 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 your 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 MD Anderson 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 meals enjoyable in a relaxed, pleasant atmosphere

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

7. 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.”


However, do contact your care team if you:

  • Experience persistent loss of appetite
  • Lose more than 2 lbs. in one week
  • 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

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