Loss of appetite

Tiredness, feeling sick or taste changes can all make you feel less hungry

There are lots of reasons why you might lose your appetite when you have cancer. It could be the cancer itself, your treatment, or other side-effects like tiredness, feeling sick or taste changes that are making you feel less hungry. Feeling anxious can also play a part – worrying about your health can make it hard to think about food.

What can help?

Mealtimes

  • Everyone is different, so try experimenting to see what you can tolerate. For some people, big meals might seem overwhelming, so try to eat little and often. You could try having five or six small meals or snacks a day, served on small plates as this may be less off-putting. If you find it difficult to eat this often, you could try swapping snacks for high-calorie (high-energy) drinks, like smoothies.
  • If you find drinks make you feel full, it might be best to avoid drinking anything at mealtimes to allow you to eat as much as possible.
  • Try to make meal and snack times as relaxing as possible. This will depend on what works for you – perhaps a quiet room with no distraction makes you feel more comfortable, or you may prefer to have friends and family around you, or have some music on.
  • It’s best to try to sit upright while you’re eating and to take your time with your meal – chewing and swallowing slowly. If you feel sick or full, you could try getting some fresh air and eating again later.
  • Every little counts – be positive about what you have managed to eat rather than focusing on what’s left.
  • Make your food look as appealing as possible, for example by adding a garnish of herbs or wedge of lemon.

Choosing what to eat

  • It can be hard to know what you actually want to eat when you don’t have an appetite, so keep a variety of ready-to-eat snacks to hand or ask your family to prepare meals or foods that you liked in the past – these can be portioned up into small meals and frozen so they are quickly available when you feel like trying them. 
  • Eat what you fancy, when you fancy, and try to eat a little more when your appetite is at its best.
  • Some people find that spicy or sweet food and drink or bitter drinks such as black coffee, tonic water or chicory can all help stimulate the appetite.

Looking after yourself

  • If you smoke, try to cut down as much as possible as smoking can reduce your appetite. Ask your doctor for support if you want to stop smoking.
  • Gentle exercise, like going for a walk, could help to increase your appetite.
  • It can help to talk to family and friends about your change in appetite and let them know what will help you, whether that’s being able to graze on food throughout the day or having quiet mealtimes.
  • If you’re feeling anxious or worried, try to get some support from your doctor, another health professional or someone else you trust.

If you’re losing weight

Loss of appetite can mean that you start to lose weight. If this is happening to you, try our tips on weight loss.

If you’ve tried to make changes but keep losing weight or cannot put any weight back on, ask your dietitian or doctor for more support. They may be able to prescribe medication to help increase your appetite, as well as high-energy drinks (liquid food supplements) to add extra calories to what you are able to eat.

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