Health libraryBack to health library
What to do when cancer ruins your appetite
Eating well is an important part of any cancer treatment plan. You might not recover as quickly, for instance, if you’re not well-nourished. But what if you just don’t feel like eating? Maybe your mouth is sore or you often feel nauseated. What can you do? Scroll on to learn some tips that may help you get the nutrition you need.
Eat small, frequent meals. Try eating five small meals a day instead of three large ones. You may find this easier than eating your usual breakfast, lunch and dinner amounts.
When you feel queasy, try foods that are easy on an upset stomach. Options include plain or vanilla yogurt, clear broth, pudding, bananas, dry white toast, saltine crackers, canned fruits, and angel food cake. You’ll want to avoid greasy, fried, spicy, or very sweet or aromatic foods, as they may worsen nausea.
Avoid foods that are too hot or too cold. Hot foods have strong smells that may worsen nausea, and foods that are too hot or too cold may irritate any mouth sores. If you’re having these problems, try letting your food cool down or warm up to room temperature before you eat it. Try using ice or a microwave to cool or heat foods quickly. Be sure not to eat perishable food that was left out for longer than one hour.
Keep moving. If you feel up to it, try taking short walks every day. Light exercise can help perk up your appetite and your mood. Ask your doctor what activities are OK.
Drink between, not during, meals. Or sip only small amounts with meals. The reason? While drinking plenty of liquids is important—it helps you avoid dehydration and constipation—drinking and eating at the same time may cause you to fill up quickly on liquids before you get enough food.
Keep snacks handy. Have some ready and close by for when you feel hungry at home or on the go. Good choices include nutrient-dense dried fruit, nuts, applesauce packets, peanut butter crackers, protein bars, and cut-up fruits and veggies.
Eat foods that appeal to you now. Cancer can change the way foods taste and smell, which may make some foods you normally enjoy less appealing. Cancer can also cause you to dislike foods that you associate with symptoms such as nausea. These changes should get better in time. Until then:
- Eat foods that taste and smell good to you—even if that means cereal for dinner or chicken for breakfast.
- If you’re worried that you’ll develop an aversion to a favorite food, don’t skip it altogether. Just save it for when you’re feeling better.
Talk to your doctor or a dietitian. Every cancer journey is unique. Your cancer team can give you more specific advice to help you overcome any eating challenges you’re experiencing.
Sources: American Cancer Society; American Institute for Cancer Research; American Society of Clinical Oncology; National Cancer Institute
- American Cancer Society. "Dehydration and Lack of Fluids." https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/eating-problems/fluids-and-dehydration.html.
- American Cancer Society. "Loss of Appetite." https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/eating-problems/poor-appetite.html.
- American Cancer Society. "Swallowing Problems." https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/eating-problems/swallowing-problems.html.
- American Cancer Society. "Taste and Smell Changes." https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/eating-problems/taste-smell-changes.html.
- American Institute for Cancer Research. "Living Well with Cancer Beyond." https://www.aicr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/CancerResource2019-1.pdf.
- Cancer.Net. "Appetite Loss." https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/physical-emotional-and-social-effects-cancer/managing-physical-side-effects/appetite-loss.
- EatRight.org. "Radiation and Diet." https://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/cancer/radiation-and-diet.
- National Cancer Institute. "Appetite Loss and Cancer Treatment." https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/appetite-loss.
- National Cancer Institute. "Eating Hints: Before, During and After Cancer Treatment." https://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/eating-hints.