Alberta Cancer Foundation

How to Deal With Loss of Appetite During Cancer Treatment

By: Jennifer Friesen

Illustration by Sheila Toderian

A common side-effect of cancer and cancer treatment is loss of appetite. Carla Prado, researcher and professor at the University of Alberta and nutrition expert in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, explores the best ways people with cancer can navigate their diet and nutrition when experiencing loss of appetite.

Q: Why is it important for someone with cancer to maintain a healthy diet?

Nutrition is essential for optimal cancer treatment. I like to use the analogy that nutrition is like the ugly duckling: many ignore how important it is, but a well-nourished body gives patients the energy needed to undergo daily activities, including cancer treatment. Nutrients support immune function and muscle health. This, in turn, can decrease the chances of severe toxicity to chemotherapy and surgical complications, as well as decrease the risk of infection and improve physical function.

Q: Are there ways to stimulate appetite?

Small meals and snacks throughout the day can help. It’s also important to schedule mealtimes, as low appetite may make us forget to eat. It’s important for these meals and snacks to be packed with protein and calories. Presentation also matters to make meals enjoyable, so arranging foods in a way that is appealing, including diverse colours, can help.

Q: What specific nutrients and vitamins are important for people with cancer to incorporate into their diets?

A balanced diet containing a variety of fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains and protein is essential to provide all macronutrients and micronutrients. When appetite is low, we may need to pack calories in food options that are high in calories and fat, such as milk, cheese, cream and ice cream. One nutrient I want to highlight is protein. Protein is the building block of muscle mass and essential to support muscle health. Animal protein such as red meat, poultry, pork, fish, eggs, cheese, milk and yogurt are all important to include in meals, although some protein is also found in plant sources such as beans and lentils.

Q: How much should someone with cancer be eating to get adequate nutrition?

The amount of calories and protein we need is based on our body weight. But importantly, this may need to be individualized depending on people’s nutritional and health status. Patients with loss of appetite may need to be referred to a registered dietitian who will not only be able to estimate how much they should be eating, but also help them achieve it. The importance of registered dietitians cannot be overstated.

Q: How can someone with cancer who is experiencing loss of appetite get the nutrition they need?

Eating a variety of nutritious foods is the ideal way to meet your nutritional needs, but in certain cases, we may not be able to get enough of the quantity and quality of food we need. Nutritional supplements are an important strategy that can fill gaps in nutrition by providing much-needed calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. Since people can also feel full quickly, limiting liquids during mealtimes is important, so try not to drink 30 minutes before or after meals. It’s also important to monitor your weight. If you continue to lose weight and can’t keep enough food down, ask to see a dietitian.

Prado recently launched a free cookbook, The High Protein Cookbook for Muscle Health During Cancer Treatment, to help people with cancer increase their intake of protein. Download your free copy at era.library.ualberta.ca/items/a5fd6960-db6d-4682-9190-1a92659cca73. Copies can also be purchased on Amazon.