Poor appetite, losing weight

When you have cancer you may need more nourishment from food than usual but you may not feel like eating. 

It is not uncommon for people to lose weight before they are diagnosed or as a result of treatment. Many people find that their appetite changes, either due to their disease or as a result of their treatment or medication.

What can I do?

There are a few medicines that may improve your appetite but they can have side effects. Ask your doctor, nurse or dietitian if they would be suitable for you.

What can I eat?

  • Many people find it easier to have small frequent snacks throughout the day rather than sticking to three meals a day
  • Some people find that alcoholic drinks such as sherry or a glass of wine before a meal can help perk up their appetite
  • Try to eat when your appetite is at its best. For many patients this is in the morning – why not try a cooked breakfast or porridge?
  • A very full plate of food may put you off eating. Try having your food on a smaller plate to keep the portions small – you can always go back for more if you still feel hungry
  • Choose easy-to-eat foods – many people find soft foods like puddings easier than difficult-to-chew foods like meat.
  • Choose full-fat foods wherever possible, such as those labelled 'luxury' or 'thick and creamy' rather than 'light', 'diet' or 'low fat'
  • Use full-cream milk and full-fat yoghurt
  • Try to eat fried foods more often if you can manage them
  • Don't fill up on low-energy filling foods such as vegetables and fruit
  • Add extra butter, margarine or oil to bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pasta, rice, chapatis, rotis, noodles and cooked vegetables
  • Add peanut butter, chocolate spread, lemon curd, honey, jam or marmalade to bread, toast, crackers or biscuits
  • Add mayonnaise or oil-based dressings to salads, sandwiches and jacket potato fillings, or use as a dip for crisps or chips
  • Add extra cheese to pizzas, sauces, soups, pasta and vegetables, and extra paneer to curries
  • Avoid replacing a meal with soup as it does not have as much nourishment as a meal or snack. If you really fancy soup then enrich using one of the ideas in the next bullet point
  • Add cream, sour cream, plain yoghurt, mascarpone cheese or crème fraîche to sauces, soups and meat dishes
  • Use evaporated milk, condensed milk or cream (pouring or whipped) to top desserts, cakes and hot drinks
  • Add cream to porridge, custard and other milk puddings
  • Use extra sugar, honey or syrup with cereal, drinks, fruit and desserts
  • Have cream, ice cream or soya ice cream (frozen non-dairy dessert) with desserts
  • Try and keep a variety of foods in your diet as this may help improve your intake

Specific eating problems

If you have a problem such as diarrhoea or an altered sense of taste, we have more tips and strategies for healthy eating.

Find out more

Further information can be found in this section of the website and in the Eating Well booklet, or by contacting the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS).