Appetite Changes

Cancer and its treatment can cause changes in your eating habits and your desire to eat. Not eating can lead to weight loss, and this can cause weakness and fatigue. Eating as well as you can is an important part of taking care of yourself. Treatment-related side effects like pain, nausea, and constipation can also cause loss of 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 swallowingdepressionpainnausea, 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 changes

What the patient can do

  • Eat several snacks throughout the day, rather than 3 large meals.
  • Avoid drinking liquids with meals, or take only small sips of liquids to keep from feeling full early (unless you need liquids to help swallow or for dry mouth). Drink most of your liquids between meals.
  • Make eating more enjoyable by setting the table with pretty dishes, playing your favorite music, watching TV, or eating with someone.
  • Be as physically active as you can. Start off slowly, and increase your activity over time as you feel stronger. Sometimes a short walk an hour or so before meals can help you feel hungry.
  • Keep high-calorie, high-protein snacks on hand. Try hard-cooked eggs, peanut butter, cheese, ice cream, granola bars, liquid nutritional supplements, puddings, nuts, canned tuna or chicken, or trail mix. (See the table of high-protein foods in Eating Well During Treatment.)
  • Review the tips on adding calories and protein to foods and include these in meals and snacks throughout the day.
  • Eat your favorite foods any time of the day; for instance, if you like breakfast foods, eat them for dinner.

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 3 pounds or more
  • Has pain when eating
  • Doesn’t urinate for an entire day or doesn’t move bowels 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 oncology certified 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: July 29, 2019

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