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