Cancer treatment and loss of appetite

Loss of appetite is a common problem that may be caused by many things including the effects of cancer on the body, the effects of treatment or other side-effects such as feeling sick or the smell of food, or feeling down or upset. You may just not feel like eating.

There are many ways to make mealtimes more appealing if you have lost your appetite:

  • Try to keep to a regular eating pattern. You may not feel hungry but your body still needs nourishment in order to maintain your weight.
  • A very full plate of food may put you off eating – try having your food on a smaller plate to keep the portions small.
  • Eat what you feel like, when you feel like it. For example, have cereal at dinner time and a main meal at lunch.
  • Try to keep a variety of foods in your diet as this may help improve your intake.
  • Choose full–fat foods whenever possible. These may be labelled as ‘thick and creamy’ rather than ‘light’ or ‘diet’ or ‘low fat’.
  • Add high energy and protein foods to your fruit and vegetables. For example fruit with yoghurt, cut up vegetables with dip and roasting vegetables with olive oil.
  • Have a range of ready prepared foods and snacks on hand for times when you don’t feel like preparing food. Cook larger quantities in advance and store in the freezer, or ask family and friends to prepare meals if you don’t feel like cooking. Remember to practice good food hygiene.
  • Sip fluids throughout the day, choosing ones that add kilojoules and other nutrients such as milk, milkshakes or commercial supplements.
  • Gentle physical activity can stimulate appetite. For example, take a short walk around the block or even around your backyard.
  • Make meals as enjoyable and social as possible – you may want to play music, turn off the TV, light candles or invite friends to join you.

Changes in taste or smell

People often report that the flavour of food changes during cancer treatment. Common comments are that ‘all food tastes the same’, ‘food is like cardboard’, ‘food has a metallic taste’, and ‘I no longer like the taste of my favourite food’.

Usually this is a temporary issue experienced during the period of treatment and for a short time afterward, but unfortunately taste changes can be long lasting in some patients. It may also take some time to be able to resume enjoyment of foods you find off putting during treatment.

Changes to the flavour of food are highly individual and can be unexpected and quite frustrating especially if food is a large part of your social life and a source of daily enjoyment.

If you have a sore mouth, sore throat or swallowing difficulties, talk to your doctor, speech pathologist, dentist or dietitian as some of the following suggestions will not be suitable.

The following information may be useful in preparing you for what to expect and for minimising symptoms. The tips also include suggestions for exploring new flavours during treatment:

  • If food tastes bland, make use of seasonings such as fresh herbs, lemon, lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, honey, chilli, pepper, Worcestershire sauce or pickles or experiment with Asian style sauces.
  • If you are overly sensitive to strong flavours, minimise use of chilli, spices, carbonated drinks, mints or chewing gum. Choose subtly flavoured alternatives instead.
  • It is common to go off meat during treatment. If you find meat less appetising, try and rely on other good protein sources such as cheese, eggs, nuts, dairy foods or baked beans, kidney beans, lentils or chick peas.
  • Beer, wine, coffee and tea may taste different or be off putting because of the smell, taste or texture. Try not to let this interfere with your social life – choose non–alcohol alternatives or try a milkshake, fresh juice or hot chocolate.
  • If the smell of food is bothering you, try cold foods or reheat prepared meals in the microwave so the cooking odour doesn’t put you off eating. Stay out of the kitchen, if possible, when food is being prepared. Ask family or friends to cook.
  • If you experience a bitter or metallic taste in the mouth, try refreshing food or liquids to combat this taste such as nibbling on moist fruit including berries or melon or suck boiled lollies (try ginger flavoured) or sip flavoured drinks.
  • Sometimes a bad taste in the mouth can be a result of an unhealthy or dry mouth. Keep your teeth and mouth clean by brushing and rinsing often.
  • You may go off favourite foods but equally you may now tolerate (and even enjoy) foods you previously did not consume. It is common for preferences for sweet or savoury foods to reverse during treatment. Trial and error while you are experiencing flavour problems is key.
This information was last reviewed in June 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Jenelle Loeliger, Head – Nutrition Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Aigner, Cancer Information Consultant, Cancer Council Helpline ACT; Ian Anderson, Consumer; Anna Boltong, PhD Candidate (Dietitian), Department of Cancer Experiences Research, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Bridget Kehoe, Public Health Coordinator (Nutrition and Physical Activity), Cancer Council QLD; Steve Pratt, Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager, Cancer Council WA; and Roswitha Stegmann, Helpline Nurse, Cancer Council WA.

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