No appetite? How to get nutrition during cancer treatment

Eating well may help you feel better and make it easier to tolerate your cancer treatment. Use these tips to get the nutrition you need. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Sometimes cancer or cancer treatment can affect your appetite. Though you might not feel like eating, it's important to do what you can to maintain your calorie, protein and fluid intake during cancer treatment. Use this information to help plan meals and snacks that will be more appealing and provide the nutrition you need to get better.

Keep in mind that in some cases, such as advanced cancer, eating may not affect the outcome of your illness or treatment. In these situations, trying to follow specific dietary guidelines, such as adhering to a low-sodium or low-fat diet, may not be practical. Sometimes caregivers or family members can unintentionally add stress by pushing or trying to force you to eat certain foods. Ask your doctor how carefully you need to follow specific dietary guidelines.

Mealtime

  • Eat small amounts more frequently. If you feel full after eating only a small amount, try eating small amounts throughout the day when you get the urge to eat. You may find it easier to eat small amounts several times each day rather than at mealtimes.
  • Schedule mealtimes. If you never seem to feel hungry, it's often helpful to eat according to a schedule rather than to rely on appetite.
  • Eat more when you're hungry. Take advantage of the times when you feel your best to eat more. Many people have their best appetite in the morning, when they're rested.
  • Limit fluids during meals. Liquids can fill you up and limit your intake of higher calorie foods. It may help to drink most of your liquids at least a half-hour before or after meals.
  • Create a pleasant mealtime atmosphere. For example, use soft music, candles or nice place settings.
  • Make meals more appealing. Select foods with a variety of colors and textures to make your meals more appealing.
  • Avoid smells that make you sick. Pay attention to smells, as certain scents may decrease your appetite or bring on nausea. Avoid smells that have this effect on you.

Snack time

  • Keep snacks handy. Have snacks readily available so that you can eat when you're up to it. Cheese, ice cream, canned fruit in heavy syrup, dried fruit, nuts, peanut butter with crackers, cheese with crackers, muffins, cottage cheese and chocolate milk are examples of high-calorie snacks requiring little or no preparation. Don't be too concerned that some of these options are high in cholesterol or fat. Once you regain your appetite, you can focus on lower calorie snacking options.
  • Have a bedtime snack. Bedtime may be a good time to snack because your appetite for the next meal won't be affected.

Anytime

  • Try cold foods. Cold or room temperature foods may be more appealing, particularly if strong smells bother you. Cold sandwiches or main-dish salads, such as pasta salad or tuna, chicken, egg and ham salads, are good choices.
  • Experiment with foods. Once-favorite foods may no longer appeal to you, while foods you were never fond of may become appealing.
  • Exercise to increase your appetite. Regular exercise may help stimulate your appetite. Ask your doctor whether exercise is safe for you.
  • Try shakes and instant drink mixes. Nutritional supplement drinks, such as instant breakfast mixes and canned or powdered shakes, can provide a significant amount of calories and require little or no preparation. It may be easier for you to drink rather than to eat something.
Aug. 10, 2012 See more In-depth