Poor Appetite

A person with a poor appetite or no appetite may eat much less than normal or may not eat at all. A poor appetite can be caused by a changed sense of taste or smell, feeling full, tumor growth, dehydration, or the side effects of treatment. A poor appetite can be made worse by many things, such as trouble swallowing, depression, pain, nausea, or vomiting. (More information on these causes is given in the related sections.) A poor appetite is most often a short-term problem.

What to look for

  • Little or no interest in food
  • Refusing to eat favorite foods
  • Weight loss

What the patient can do

  • Talk with your cancer team about what may be causing your poor appetite.
  • Eat as much as you want to, but don’t force yourself to eat.
  • Think of food as a necessary part of treatment.
  • Start the day with breakfast.
  • Eat small, frequent meals.
  • Try foods high in calories that are easy to eat (such as pudding, ice cream, sherbet, yogurt, milkshakes, or cream-based soups).
  • Add sauces and gravies to meats, and cut meats into small pieces to make them easy to swallow.
  • Use butter, oils, syrups, and milk in foods to increase calories. Avoid low-fat foods unless fats cause heartburn or other problems.
  • Try strong flavorings or spices.
  • Create pleasant settings for meals. Soft music, conversation, and other distractions may help you eat better.
  • Eat with other family members.
  • Drink liquids between meals instead of with meals. (Drinking liquids at mealtime can fill you up.)
  • Try light exercise an hour before meals.
  • Hard candies, mint tea, or ginger ale might help get rid of strange tastes in your mouth.
  • With your doctor’s OK, enjoy a glass of beer or wine before eating.
  • Eat a snack at bedtime.
  • When you don’t feel like eating, try liquid meals, such as flavored supplements. (Your cancer team can make suggestions and may have samples you can try.) Use a straw if it helps.

What caregivers can do

  • Try giving the patient 6 to 8 small meals and snacks each day.
  • Offer starchy foods, such as bread, pasta, or potatoes, with high-protein foods, such as fish, chicken, meats, turkey, eggs, cheeses, milk, tofu, nuts, peanut butter, yogurt, peas, and beans.
  • Keep cool drinks and juices within the patient’s reach.
  • If the smell of food bothers the patient, serve bland foods cold or at room temperature.
  • Create pleasant settings for meals, and eat with the patient.
  • Offer fruit smoothies, milkshakes, or liquid meals when the patient doesn’t want to eat.
  • Try plastic forks and knives instead of metal if the patient is bothered by bitter or metallic tastes.
  • Don’t blame yourself if the patient refuses food or can’t eat.
  • Be encouraging, but try not to nag or fight about eating.
  • If the patient can’t eat, you might want to offer just your company. Or offer to read to them or give them a massage.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Feels nauseated and can’t eat for a day or more
  • Loses 5 pounds or more
  • Has pain when eating
  • Doesn’t urinate (pee) for an entire day or doesn’t move bowels (poop) for 2 days or more
  • Doesn’t urinate often, and when they do, it comes out in small amounts, smells strong, or is dark colored
  • Vomits for more than 24 hours
  • Is unable to drink or keep down liquids
  • Has pain that’s not controlled

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: June 8, 2015

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