Being Well

Nutrition and Cancer: How to Keep up Your Appetite During Treatment

Eating properly is part of your cancer treatment. Talk to your doctor about how you can best incorporate nutrition into your cancer treatment.

Dealing with concerns about nutrition and cancer treatment is a common occurrence after diagnosis. When you’re fighting cancer, you need the proper nutrients and vitamins to feed your body so it stays strong. With that, appetite loss can be a frustrating side effect of some cancer treatments, and cancer itself can affect your willingness (and ability) to keep food down.

Eating and cancer treatment don’t have to be opposed, though. Here are some ideas on how to maintain nutrition and cancer treatments at the same time.


Small Meals and Snacks

Perhaps you feel full quickly or just have no appetite. Your body might not tolerate larger meals. Eating small meals and snacks throughout the day might be an easier approach. Separate some of your favorite snacks, such as crackers, carrot sticks or sliced cucumbers, into plastic bags. You can then throw a few in your bag or purse so they’re readily available throughout your day. If it’s easier, portion out your produce and snack foods after you go grocery shopping. Then you can grab and go and avoid eating more than your stomach can handle.

Make It Count

Make sure the food you’re eating counts from a nutrition perspective. Empty calories like potato chips and candy may feel like comfort food, but they won’t help your body, and they might actually make you feel worse. Instead, go for snacks that are higher in protein and calories, like nuts, cheeses, snack bars, dried fruits and eggs. Even milkshakes and ice cream have calcium and protein and can provide nutrition while making the food go down more easily. Additionally, instead of just water, which you should regularly drink, add some nutritious beverages too. Make a smoothie with fruit and yogurt, perhaps adding some protein powder.

Actions to Take

Some experience nausea from different food odors. Try eating these foods cold or at room temperature, so the smell and taste won’t be as pronounced. If friends like to bring you meals to eat, you can set some guidelines so the meals are more appetizing. Advise them to bring you a nutritious meal like roast chicken and steamed vegetables. A heavy casserole might not sit well with your system, but simply cooked foods with nutrition and cancer-fighting ingredients help.

Schedule your meals, in case you aren’t hungry, and make mealtime as pleasant as possible. Set the table with flowers or eat outdoors. Enjoy the company of friends or family. Make your plate look nice and consider using a smaller plate if you’re not hungry. A big plate can look too challenging. Exercise, as the American Society of Clinical Oncology suggests, can stimulate appetite, so try staying active with a short walk or trip to the gym before you eat.

Address the Causes

The causes for appetite loss aren’t the same for each person. You might have mouth sores from cancer treatment, making food unappetizing. Or it might be that the metallic taste in your mouth makes everything taste bad, so you have no desire to eat. You might have depression or fatigue that lowers your appetite. Talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling and your loss of appetite to see how you can alleviate those specific symptoms.

Think of nutrition and cancer treatment as partners. Getting the necessary nutrients is part of your treatment process, and it’s something you have some control over in your journey. When you eat properly, your body is at its best to fight off cancer.

Choose foods that are packed with nutrients to make the most of the food you eat. Your doctor can help you find the perfect diet for you during cancer treatment.

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Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan