Loss of appetite

People with advanced cancer often notice changes in their appetite. This may be because of the cancer itself, treatment, or other side effects such as tiredness, nausea or vomiting, change in sense of taste, pain, lack of activity, or depression.

A loss of appetite often leads to weight loss and malnutrition.

By controlling appetite, your strength, function and quality of life can be maintained. However, it’s not necessary to force yourself to eat; this may only make you feel uncomfortable and cause vomiting and stomach pain. See Tips on managing symptoms for suggestions.

Food-type nutritional supplements can increase nutrient intake. These are used as snacks between meals. Many pharmacies and supermarkets sell these specially formulated nutritional supplements. You do not need a prescription from your doctor or dietitian to buy them.

Many people with advanced cancer develop wasting syndrome (cachexia). This means the body isn’t using protein, carbohydrates and fats properly. Your doctor or dietitian will discuss ways to control cachexia, which may include nutritional supplements.

Read our Nutrition and Cancer booklet for more details on malnutrition and wasting syndrome (cachexia). Call 13 11 20 for a copy, or download a digital copy from this page.

Helpful tips for dealing with loss of appetite

  • Eat what you feel like, when you feel like it, e.g. have cereal for dinner or a main meal at lunch.
  • Use a smaller plate – a big plate full of food may put you off eating.
  • Relax dietary restrictions. During treatment, maintaining your weight is more important than avoiding full-fat foods.
  • Add flavour to foods with lemon juice, herbs and spices.
  • Add ice-cream or cream to fruit or a smoothie to increase kilojoules and nutrients.
  • Sip on juice, cordials, soft drinks and sports drinks during the day to keep hydrated.
  • Make meals as enjoyable as possible, e.g. play music, light candles or eat with friends.
  • Gentle physical activity can stimulate appetite, e.g. take a short walk around the block.

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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