How To Improve Your Appetite When You Have Cancer
Written by Meredy Birdi on 3rd January 2018

Changes in appetite are common with cancer and cancer treatment. If you are not eating as well as usual and you don’t get the nutrients your body needs, this can result in loss of weight, muscle mass and strength, which can slow recovery and lead to breaks in your treatment. 

If possible, try to identify what is contributing to your loss of appetite. Symptoms such as nausea, dry mouth, anxiety and constipation are common and can have a major impact on your desire to eat. All these symptoms can be improved. Speak with your health care team about any difficulties you may be experiencing.

Although you may not feel like eating, giving your body the nutrients it needs will help you to cope better both physically and emotionally with the effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Tips for improving nutrition when your appetite is reduced

Eat small, frequent meals. Try eating 5 - 6 small meals a day rather than 3 larger ones. Small meals can be less daunting and less filling than large meals, and eating them frequently still allows you to consume the same amount of food overall.

Try serving meals on a smaller plate, as this will feel less overwhelming if your appetite is poor. 

Take nourishing snacks that are high in healthy calories and protein. Try hummus with pitta pockets, oatcakes with guacamole, apple slices with nut butter, spinach with hard-boiled egg or yoghurt with berries. 

¥ Drink nourishing fluids, especially if you are struggling to maintain your weight. Choose drinks such as organic milk or milk based drinks, vegetable juices, coconut water (no added sugar) and smoothies. Avoid taking too much fluid just before a meal, as you will feel too full for food.

Break with convention and eat the foods you fancy when you feel like it. If your appetite is better in the morning eat more then and have cereal, porridge or something on toast in the evening.

Avoid strong smells or cooking smells if they put you off eating. Cold foods such as hummus, terrines, mousses, yoghurt and cottage cheese may be more appealing as they have less of an aroma.

Try using different herbs and spices in cooking especially if your taste or smell has changed. Fenugreek, black pepper, mustard seeds, caraway, coriander, ginger, cayenne pepper, fennel, rosemary, thyme, tarragon can all help to aid digestion.

Fortify foods by adding extra calories and protein without increasing the volume. Try adding a dash of extra virgin olive oil or ground almonds to soups, pesto to mashed potato, grated cheese to omelettes, avocado to smoothies or drizzling vegetables with tahini.

Accept offers of help. Family members and friends are often keen to help in any way they can. Allowing them to fetch your groceries or prepare food for you at times when you are feeling tired can be a big help. Also consider batch cooking and freezing for future, using a slow cooker or buying pre-cooked meals. If you are struggling to maintain your nutritional intake and are concerned about weight loss, please speak to your Dietitian who will advise you regarding nutritional supplement drinks that can be prepared at home, bought over the counter or prescribed by your Doctor. Natural tips to help stimulate your appetite

Eat breakfast, ideally within half an hour of waking. Eating breakfast kick starts your metabolism after a long fast overnight and gets your body ready for the day. A nourishing breakfast will provide you with energy, meaning you are more likely to be active during the day, in turn further increasing your appetite.

Take a daily walk to stimulate your appetite and maintain muscle mass and strength. If you can’t manage a walk, try sitting by an open window and taking in some fresh air before eating.

Cinnamon contains hydroxychalcone, a component that may help to increase appetite. This claim is mainly anecdotal and the exact role cinnamon plays in appetite is not known. Try cinnamon tea, as well as adding cinnamon to milky drinks, stewed fruit and rice pudding.

Herbal teas such as peppermint, spearmint, dandelion, burdock, anise and liquorice have traditionally been used to increase appetite. Try drinking a cup or two throughout the day to increase your liquid intake and potentially increase your appetite.

Eat bitter foods such as rocket, endive, radicchio, kale and bitter lettuces to stimulate your appetite, liver and gall bladder function.

Swedish bitters contain berberine, which stimulates the production of digestive enzymes to improve digestive function as well as encouraging good bile flow for the emulsification of fats. They can also help with nausea and improve appetite if you feel that your digestion is a bit sluggish. If you would like to try them, I recommend that you check with your Pharmacist first to make sure there are no contra-indications with any medications you are taking.

Try increasing foods rich in zinc such as sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, chickpeas, beef, lamb, prawns, spinach, cashew nuts and quinoa. Zinc is required for good digestive function, including the production of hydrochloric acid, which regulates digestion in the stomach. 

Reduce stress where possible. Cortisol and other stress hormones such as adrenaline can reduce your appetite and cause a reduction in digestive processes.

Boost your magnesium levels by taking regular Epsom salt baths. Low magnesium levels can contribute to a poor appetite. Epsom salt is naturally occurring magnesium and sulphate and bathing in Epsom salts may allow the body to absorb magnesium through the skin. Epsom salts baths are also very relaxing and can help you sleep. Note: If you are feeling less well, for safety it 
is best to bathe when somebody else is at home with you, or try an Epsom salt foot soak instead.

Meredy Birdi

BSc (Hons) Dietetics, NT Dip, mBDA, mBANT, mNNA, HCPC Registered, CNHC Registered
Meredy is a Registered Dietitian, Nutritional Therapist and Health Coach with more than 18 years experience supporting the nutritional and emotional needs of people with cancer. 
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