When it comes to nutrition related side effects from cancer and the treatments that many have to take, loss of appetite is one of the most common. As an oncology dietitian of over 10 years, this is one of the questions that I get from people who are dealing with treatments:
“What do I do if I don’t feel like eating?”
Before we get into the practical tips, I think it’s important to remember why you want to be well nourished!
Adequate Nutrition Intake Supports Muscle Growth & Recovery
There are several tips that can help to make sure that you get adequate nutrition despite the challenge of poor appetite. The important thing to remember is that your body needs essential nutrients, calories and protein in order to have the best chance at tolerating treatment and minimizing muscle loss.
I always tell my clients that as much as possible, you want to keep your muscle around because it helps to give you energy, support your immune system, and will make recovery from a surgery or treatment quicker. Plus, you will feel better if you’re better nourished!
The hard part is figuring out how to meet your needs when you don’t really feel hungry. That’s when these practical tips come in handy.
Tips for Meeting Nutrition Needs When You Don’t Feel Like Eating
- Eat 5-6 small meals a day to get your nutrients without getting tired from eating a large meal. I recommend that you have something within an hour of waking up and also a meal or snack every 2-3 hours throughout the day. Set an alarm and make sure your naps do not push your meals/snacks too far apart.
- Keep high calorie, high protein snacks on hand. These will be essential for you to have something quick and simple to grab and eat when you don’t have the energy or interest in making food. For a list of protein foods, check out my article here:
Amount of Protein In Various Foods: Charts and Lists!
- Ask for help from a friend or family member to have snacks and meals ready to go.
- Use nutrition drinks like Ensure, Carnation Instant Breakfast, and Boost to get in nutrients, calories, and protein. Find recipes for using nutrition drinks on the Cancer Dietitian YouTube Channel.
- If cleared by your doctor, try light exercise to increase hunger levels and appetite.
One of the best ways to know if you are meeting your nutrient needs is by monitoring your weigh and strength. Weigh yourself at home, or ask your medical team if you have lost weight. Your weight may go up and down from one week to the next, but if you notice it is consistently going down week after week, you need to do something to turn it around.
For strength, you can use a simple hand grip strength measurement to determine if you are losing strength. You also can probably tell by how tired you get when you go for walks, or open doors, do sit to stand type movements, etc.
Other nutrient deficiencies can be determined when you have bloodwork taken. Be sure you are asking your healthcare providers if you are low in any nutrient markers, especially iron, vitamin D and other micronutrients.
If you are trying different strategies and unable to maintain your weight, strength and nutrients, you should ask for a referral to the oncology dietitian at your treatment center, who can help you come up with an individualized plan to determine your needs and come up with a strategy to meet them.
Hope that helps!