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How to Regain Your Lost Appetite After Cancer Treatment

July 24, 2014

Imagine this: You wake up one morning feeling somewhat hungry, so you decide to eat a bowl of cereal and some fruit. But after breakfast, you feel so full that you skip lunch entirely and don’t feel hungry the rest of the afternoon. By the time dinner rolls around, you still don’t have much of an appetite, so you end up having a small snack instead.

Sound familiar? If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, it might be a scenario that you face every day. Appetite loss is an all-too-common problem for many cancer patients and survivors. Whether it’s caused by the treatment, other side effects or the cancer itself, loss of appetite can make coping with cancer all the more challenging.

Why Did Cancer Cause Me to Lose My Appetite?

As is the case with many other side effects of cancer, doctors and researchers don’t yet know exactly what causes patients and survivors to lose their appetite. As I mentioned earlier, it could be the radiation or chemotherapy that makes you feel like not eating. It might even be your mental health, emotional well-being, stress or anxiety that’s causing you not to feel hungry.

In some cases, your loss of appetite may be the result of other side effects you’re experiencing, like pain, nausea, vomiting or changes in how food tastes and smells. In fact, that last side effect is actually a rather common factor that contributes to loss of appetite. After going through chemotherapy or radiation, many people say that foods suddenly have a metallic or medicinal taste, or the scent of certain foods makes them feel nauseous.

How Long Will My Appetite Loss Last?

Unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for this question. The answer is different for everyone. Your appetite loss may last for just a few days or throughout the entire course of your treatment.

However, no matter how long your appetite loss lasts, it is still extremely important to make sure your body is getting the nutrition it needs—even if you don’t feel hungry. Ongoing appetite loss can lead to a number of serious problems, like weight loss, malnutrition and loss of muscle mass and strength. Even though you may not always feel like it, eating well can help you feel stronger and better during and after your cancer treatment.

How Can I Manage My Loss of Appetite?

While it can sometimes be very hard to deal with loss of appetite during cancer treatment, there are several key things you can do to make sure you’re getting the proper nutrition. Here are some practical tips I give my patients who are dealing with weight loss and a poor appetite:

Start with Small Meals

Do you find yourself feeling full after eating a small amount of food? You may find it helpful to eat five or six small meals a day, rather than three larger ones during regular mealtimes.

Rely on the Clock, Not Your Appetite

If you rarely feel hungry, it’s best not to rely on your appetite to tell you when to eat. Instead, you may want to try scheduling your mealtimes. By setting a schedule, you can pick the times of day that you tend to be the hungriest—and even if you don’t have an appetite, make sure you at least eat something small at the scheduled time. Your body needs it!

Eat When Your Body Tells You To

So you might be thinking, “Wait, didn’t you just tell me to schedule my mealtimes?” I did, but there is one instance when it’s OK to abandon the schedule—when your body says, “I’m hungry!” If you have an appetite, no matter what time of day it is, eat! In many cases, people tend to have their biggest appetite in the morning after they’ve gotten a good night’s rest.

Also, be sure to always keep snacks on-hand just in case you get hungry. The key is to make sure you’re buying snacks that are high in calories and high in protein. Some good options include nuts, granola bars, dried fruit and peanut butter crackers.

Eat Cold Foods

If the smell or taste of food makes you feel sick, try eating food that is cold or at room temperature. This will help diminish the odor and taste. Some ideas might include yogurt, popsicles, milkshakes, cold sandwiches and pasta salad.

Try Meal Replacement Drinks

If it’s easier for you drink rather than eat something, try making a nutritional shake, instant breakfast mix or other meal replacement drink. These types of shakes tend to have a lot of calories, which helps you get the nutrition you need without feeling nauseous or forcing yourself to eat a meal. As an added bonus, many of these drinks are easy to make too!

Don’t Drink and Eat

Drinking large amounts of liquids during meals can fill you up fast and cause you to eat less. That’s why I recommend to my patients that they drink liquids at least 30 minutes before or after their meals. If you find yourself getting thirsty during your meal, be sure to take only small sips of liquid as you eat.

That being said, it is still very important that you get plenty of fluids during the day. While mealtimes may not be the best time to get those fluids, make sure you’re drinking enough during other times of the day. I recommend that you get at least 64 ounces of fluid per day, and whenever possible, choose drinks that have calories.

Do Some Light Exercise

Did you know that exercise can improve your appetite? It’s true. Studies have shown that people with cancer tend to feel better (and hungrier) when they get regular exercise each day.

About an hour before each meal, try taking a 20-minute walk to help stimulate your appetite. Be sure to talk with your doctor first though to make sure exercise is safe for you.

For more tips on improving your appetite, visit the American Society of Clinical Oncology website.