How to Manage Appetite Changes with Cancer
How to Manage Appetite Changes with Cancer
Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board
Last updated 5/24/21
- Cancer can make you feel full. This can happen if you have cancer in your abdomen, or if inflammation of abdominal organs (like your liver or spleen) or fluid buildup causes pressure on your stomach. Fluid buildup around your organs is called ascites. This condition can happen with several types of cancer (ovarian, breast, colon, pancreatic, liver, and stomach cancer).
- Cancer can impact metabolism. Cancer can cause changes in how your body breaks down food and turns it into energy. This condition, called cachexia, involves significant weight loss in addition to low appetite. It is rare in people with early stage cancer but very common in people with advanced cancer.
- Cancer treatments can cause side effects that impact your appetite. Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation and medications often used in cancer treatment, like opioids or antibiotics, can cause a low appetite as well as a variety of other side effects that can make eating and drinking seem unpleasant. These can include changes to the way foods taste or smell, pain, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, mouth sores, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and diarrhea and constipation. Surgery that impacts your digestive system can slow down the digestive process and make you feel full even when you need to eat. These side effects can make foods you used to enjoy less appealing, or make you less interested in eating in general.
- Emotional impacts of cancer and treatment can lower your appetite. Reduced appetite is common in people who are feeling depressed or anxious.
- Less physical activity can make you less hungry. Feeling unwell and exhausted, physically, emotionally or both, means you may not be as active as you used to be. This can impact your appetite.
Tips for managing low appetite
- Even modest physical activity before a meal can help increase your appetite. Try 10 or 20 minutes of walking, stretching or yoga.
- Keep a stash of prepared and frozen foods and snacks that don’t take much work or time to prepare, so you can easily have food ready whenever you do feel hungry.
- Take snacks with you whenever you leave home.
- Focus on foods that do seem appealing and eat them any time of day (leftover take-out for breakfast or pancakes for dinner, for example). Be kind to yourself and flexible about eating whatever does seem appetizing, whenever it seems appetizing.
- Try to eat small portions of food more often, rather than relying on three large meals each day.
- Maximize the nutritional impact when you do feel like eating by choosing high-protein and high-calorie foods, like yogurt, ice cream, eggs, nuts, cheeses, cereal, and granola or protein bars.
- Try to add calories to meals with condiments like cheese, gravy, peanut butter, butter, sour cream, whipped cream and half and half.
- Drinks can sometimes be more palatable, so opt for nutrient-dense, protein-rich drinks like smoothies, nutritional shakes, milk and milkshakes.
- Try drinking fluids between meals instead of with them. It’s important to stay hydrated, but drinks can make you feel full, so avoiding them at mealtime can help you eat more.
- If you have problems with changes to taste or smell that makes food less appetizing, try cold or room temperature dishes or snacks. Hot food tends to have stronger smells and flavors.
- If your sense of taste is affected by a metallic flavor, sucking on a hard candy before eating can sometimes help.
- If your sense of taste is reduced, try adding strong flavors to foods with hot sauce, soy sauce, spices or other condiments (caution: if you are suffering from heartburn or reflux, strong spices or flavors can sometimes aggravate those conditions).
Causes of increased appetite in people with cancer
- Chemotherapy can trigger food cravings. Many people who undergo chemotherapy experience intense cravings for carbohydrates, starchy foods like cookies, crackers and bread. These cravings may be related to nausea caused by the chemotherapy. Carb-rich foods can reduce nausea.
- Steroid medications can increase appetite. Steroids are commonly used in cancer treatment. They boost appetite and are sometimes used for this purpose in people whose appetites are very low. However, a higher appetite can also be an unwanted side effect when these medications are used for other reasons.
- Emotions can play a role. While emotions like stress, depression and anxiety can lower appetite in some people, they can have the reverse effect in others.
Tips for managing increased appetite:
- Opt for whole grains to satisfy carbohydrate cravings. These can help you feel full longer and are more nutritious than simple carbs like white bread, pasta and most crackers and chips.
- Include protein with carbohydrates to help satisfy cravings and keep you feeling full and energetic longer. Adding peanut butter to bread or crackers is an example.
- Keep chopped fresh vegetables available to snack on.
- Drink plenty of water, which can help you feel full. Herbal tea is another good option.
- Avoid sugary and high-calorie drinks, which are often easier to consume than high-calorie solid foods.
- Eating smaller meals more often throughout the day can reduce intense hunger and cravings.
- Eat fresh fruit to satisfy sugar cravings. Fruit is a healthier choice than other sweets (your body can more easily process fruit’s sugar), and the fiber in fresh fruits can help you feel full.
- Modest physical activity, like going for a walk, may help boost your energy, improve your mood and reduce food cravings.
Get help with appetite and eating challenges
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