- Cancer Information
- Living well
- Nutrition and cancer
- Treatment side effects and nutrition
- Weight loss
It’s common for people diagnosed with cancer to lose weight. This is because the process of cancer cells dividing uses up a lot of energy, and treatment side effects can change your desire to eat (loss of appetite), or make eating difficult or painful.
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Weight loss may depend on the type of cancer you have. Losing weight without trying is a sign of malnutrition. Advanced cancer may mean the way the body absorbs food changes. This is known as cachexia. With the support of your cancer care team you can prevent or slow down weight loss.
Maintaining your weight, particularly your muscle stores, will help you stay strong and recover faster. If the tips below don’t help, talk to your dietitian about nutritional supplement drinks or having a feeding tube.
You and your family and friends may be concerned that the suggestions on the opposite page are high in energy and protein. During treatment when you don’t feel well enough to eat, just eating something is more important than making healthy food choices. Keep in mind that these changes are often temporary – you can return to the usual guidelines for healthy eating once you have recovered from treatment.
If you cannot eat a balanced diet, or are losing weight without trying, your doctor or dietitian may suggest nutritional supplements such as Sustagen, Ensure, Fortisip or Resource. These are high in energy and protein, and provide nutrients that can help maintain your strength.
Nutritional supplements are available as:
- powders to mix with milk or water, or sprinkle on food
- ready-made drinks, puddings, custards and jellies.
They can be used as snacks between meals, or some can be added to drinks or meals.
A dietitian can recommend the right nutritional supplement for you. If you are having difficulty swallowing, talk to a speech pathologist for directions on thickening the supplements.
Many pharmacies and supermarkets sell nutritional supplements. While you don’t need a prescription for many supplements, a prescription may make them cheaper to buy.
- Treat food like medicine: something your body needs regularly to feel better.
- Set times for meals and snacks rather than waiting until you’re hungry.
- Have your biggest meal when you’re hungriest and not too tired.
- Eat your favourite foods at any time of day.
- Carry snacks so you can eat any time you feel like it. Try hard-boiled eggs, muesli bars, dried fruit and nuts, crackers and fruit buns.
- Choose drinks and snacks that are higher in protein and energy (kilojoules), e.g. drink full-cream milk rather than water and choose cheese and biscuits over lollies.
- Add high-protein foods, e.g. poultry, fish, meat, eggs, tofu, dairy, nuts, seeds and legumes, to every meal or snack.
- Add fats and oils (kilojoules) to what you are already eating, e.g. use extra butter, avocado, nut butters, cheese, extra virgin olive oil and cream. Avoid food and drinks labelled low-fat or no fat.
- Have dessert after meals.
- Do some gentle exercise, e.g. a walk before meals to increase your appetite.
- Make enriched milk to use in tea and coffee, cereal, soups, sauces, scrambled eggs, milkshakes and smoothies. Add 4 or more heaped tablespoons of milk protein to 1 litre of full-cream milk and mix thoroughly. Use straightaway, or keep refrigerated and use within 24 hours (stir before use).
- Stock up on ready-to-use nutritional supplement drinks when you are travelling or on other occasions when it is difficult to prepare a meal.
- See below for more suggestions on ways to add energy and protein to your meals and snacks.
Add these ingredients
to these meals and snacks
|full-cream cow’s milk, cream, coconut milk or soy milk (liquid or powdered versions)||porridge, sauces, desserts, mashed vegetables, egg dishes, cream soups, scrambled eggs, congee, milkshakes, flavoured milk drinks (e.g. Milo, Akta-Vite)|
|yoghurt or sour cream||dips, salad dressings, fruit, potatoes, roast vegetables, soups, rice dishes, lentil dhal|
|butter, margarine or olive oil||bread, toast, mashed potato, cooked vegetables, rice and pasta dishes, soup|
|cheese (e.g. cheddar, cream cheese, feta, haloumi)||scrambled eggs, sauces, soups, baked potatoes, vegetables, casseroles, salads, toast, sandwich fillings, pasta, crackers, tacos, sauces|
|mayonnaise (store bought, avoid homemade)||egg or chicken sandwiches, potato salad, coleslaw, salad dressing, tinned tuna|
|peanut butter, or other nut butters||bread, toast, porridge, crackers, pancakes, scones, fruit, smoothies|
|avocado||toast, sandwich fillings, dips, salads, crackers, smoothies|
|nuts and seeds, e.g. LSA (linseed, sunflower seeds and almonds), almond meal, hemp seeds, chia seeds||porridge, muesli, yoghurt, salads, baked goods, stir-fries, desserts|
|beans or legumes||rice dishes, toast toppings, salads, pasta dishes, soups, casseroles, mince dishes|
|egg or tofu||toast, sandwich fillings, stir-fries, mashed potato, soups, pasta sauce, salads|
Podcast: Appetite Loss and Nausea
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Jacqueline Baker, Senior Oncology Dietitian, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Lauren Atkins, Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian, OnCore Nutrition, VIC; Dr Tsien Fua, Head and Neck Radiation Oncology Specialist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Clare Hughes, Manager, Nutrition Unit, Cancer Council NSW; John Spurr, Consumer; Emma Vale, Senior Dietitian, GenesisCare, SA; David Wood, Consumer.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.