This section has been reviewed and approved by the PLWC Editorial
Appetite changes are common with cancer and cancer treatment. Individuals
with poor appetite or appetite loss may eat less than usual, not feel
hungry at all, or feel full (satiated) after eating only a small amount.
Ongoing appetite loss can lead to weight
loss, malnutrition, and loss of muscle mass and strength. The
combination of weight loss and loss of muscle mass, also called wasting,
is referred to as cachexia.
Appetite loss is common in people with cancer. Certain types of cancer,
including ovarian, pancreatic, and stomach cancers, can cause a loss of
appetite, usually by affecting a person's metabolism. Cancer-related
weight loss is not like starvation, and eating enough food doesn't solve
the problem—unlike starvation, weight loss associated with cancer results
in a loss of muscle mass.
Appetite loss also occurs in 80% to 90% of people with advanced cancer
for various reasons, including changes in metabolism, early satiety
(feeling of fullness) from ascites
(accumulation of fluid in the abdomen), and other symptoms of cancer.
Other causes of appetite loss include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and
sedative medications (drugs that cause feelings of calm or sleepiness).
In addition, radiation treatment or surgery to any part of the
gastrointestinal system, such as the stomach or intestines, can also
cause appetite loss.
Several of the side effects commonly experienced with chemotherapy and
radiation treatment may also cause appetite loss, including:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Mouth sores and
- Dry mouth
- Swallowing difficulties
- Chewing difficulties
- Changes in
taste and smell
If possible, the first step in treating appetite loss is to treat the
underlying cause. Treatment for conditions such as mouth sores, dry
mouth, pain, or depression should help improve appetite. Additional
treatment for appetite loss and associated weight loss may include
appetite-stimulating medications, medications that help food move through
the intestine, nutritional supplement drinks, and tube feeding (often a nasogastric tube that passes through the nose into
Although you may not feel like eating, it is important to remember that
good nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight are important parts of
overall cancer care and recovery. Eating well can also help a person
better cope physically and emotionally with the effects of cancer and
cancer treatment. The following tips may be helpful in maintaining proper
nutrition when your appetite is poor.
- Eat five to six small
meals a day and snack whenever you are hungry.
- Determine what times of
day you are hungry, make sure to eat at those times, and do not
limit how much you eat.
- Eat nutritious snacks
that are high in calories and protein (for example, dried fruits,
nuts, yogurt, cheeses, eggs, milkshakes, ice cream, cereal, pudding,
and granola bars).
- Keep favorite foods on
hand for snacking.
- Add calories and protein
to foods by adding sauces, gravy, butter, cheese, peanut butter,
cream, and nuts.
- Drink fluids between
meals rather than with meals. Drinking during a meal can make you
feel full too quickly.
- Choose nutritious
drinks, such as milk, milkshakes, and juices.
- Ask family members or
friends to prepare foods when you are too tired to cook. Ask them to
shop for groceries or buy precooked meals.
- Try to eat in pleasant
surroundings and eat meals with family or friends.
- Eat food that is cold or
at room temperature to decrease its odor and reduce its taste.
- Ask your doctor about
ways to relieve other gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea,
vomiting, and constipation.
- If your sense of taste
is diminished, try adding spices and condiments to foods to make
them more appealing.
- Try light exercise, such
as a 20-minute walk, about an hour before meals to stimulate your
appetite. (Consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.)
Exercise also helps maintain muscle mass.
- Drink a glass of sherry
or wine before a meal to help increase appetite.
- Meet with a registered
dietitian (RD) for additional advice on meal planning.
PLWC: Managing Side Effects