Loss of Appetite With Lung Cancer: 13 Tips To Improve Eating | MyLungCancerTeam

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Loss of Appetite With Lung Cancer: 13 Tips To Improve Eating

Medically reviewed by Kathryn Shohara, MS, RDN, LDN, CNSC
Written by Sarah Winfrey
Posted on June 12, 2024

Loss of appetite is a common symptom of living with lung cancer, and it can also be a side effect during or after lung cancer treatment. Up to 50 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer will lose their appetite at some point.

Members of MyLungCancerTeam frequently talk about losing their appetite and how it affects their well-being. One member wrote, “I have no appetite, and everything tastes like cardboard!”

It’s important to understand what can lead to reduced appetite and what you can do if it happens to you. If you know ways to avoid some of the negative side effects, you’re more likely to feel your best.

What Contributes to Loss of Appetite With Lung Cancer?

Many factors can cause you to lose your appetite when you’re living with lung cancer. Possible causes of appetite loss include:

  • Cancer treatments
  • Other medications
  • Tiredness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Changes in bowel movements, like constipation or diarrhea
  • Changes in sense of taste or smell

Mental health challenges in particular can interfere with appetite. “Anxiety hits all of us with the diagnosis,” one MyLungCancerTeam member shared. “It definitely affects the appetite and ability to get restful sleep.”

If your lack of appetite is related to cancer treatments, it may come and go as you cycle through rounds of treatment. Another member predicted the following regarding an upcoming treatment: “If it’s like last time, I’ll be nauseous and have no appetite for eight to 10 days, then it evens out.”

Knowing what to expect with each treatment round may help you stay encouraged when you don’t feel like eating.

Why Loss of Appetite Is a Big Problem for People With Lung Cancer

Losing your appetite can lead to weakness and weight loss. When you have a poor appetite, you're likely to lose weight — even if you can’t afford to.

A person diagnosed with lung cancer may develop cachexia — a condition characterized by significant weight and muscle loss — because their cancer or its treatments can increase the body's calorie needs. Cachexia can make you feel weak and tired, and it can change how you respond to some cancer medications. It can also hinder your ability to participate in activities you enjoy, lowering your quality of life.

People experiencing cachexia can develop malnutrition, in which the body can’t get enough of the nutrients it needs to thrive. Malnutrition may make it harder to recover after lung cancer treatment, too. Both cachexia and malnutrition can become life-threatening. You may need to work with a dietitian to come up with a lung cancer diet plan.

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to manage loss of appetite with lung cancer.

1. Prepare Your Food Ahead of Time

If you have favorite foods that still taste good, make them ahead of time. Store them in single-portion containers so you always have access to them, even if you don’t feel like cooking.

2. Keep Favorite Foods in Stock

If you can’t cook and there’s no one to help you do it, go shopping and buy premade options to keep on hand. This has helped some members of MyLungCancerTeam. One shared, “When I have no appetite, I usually eat the yogurt with chunks of fruit on it.”

Shelf-stable or frozen products may last longer, making them convenient options.

3. Get Help With Food Preparation

If cooking smells are putting you off eating or you are too fatigued to prep meals, find someone who can prepare food for you. Friends and loved ones often want to help, and this is something easy that they can do to make your life easier. They may also be able to regularly deliver food so you can have ongoing nutritional support.

4. Add Extra Calories to Your Food

If you can only eat a little bit at a time, add as many calories to your food as you can. Full-fat butter, cheese, ice cream, and peanut butter can help, as can honey and sugar. You can also add sauces, dressings, and other condiments to your foods regularly to sneak in extra calories. You may end up eating high-calorie foods that you would normally avoid or limit — and that’s OK. The main goal is to get your body the calories it needs during lung cancer treatment and to prevent weight loss.

5. Eat More Frequently

If it’s hard for you to eat a lot at once, try eating several, small meals or snacks throughout the day instead of focusing on large meals. Try to make sure each meal is high-protein and has as many calories as possible.

For snacks, try options like:

  • Trail mix
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Pudding
  • Granola bars
  • Nuts
  • Cheese

6. Drink After You Eat

If you generally drink while you eat, try moving your beverages to another time of day. Filling your stomach with liquid may make you feel full even when you aren’t. Stop drinking about a half hour before you eat and see if you feel hungrier than before.

7. Do Light Exercise Before You Eat

Exercise, even light exercise, can help you feel like eating more. Some experts recommend doing this about an hour before you eat, though any exercise may help stimulate hunger.

This works for some members of MyLungCancerTeam. “The exercise is increasing my appetite, which I need,” one member wrote.

8. Make Eating Pleasant

If eating is hard, try making the entire experience of having a meal something you'll enjoy. You might want to turn on music, take time to make the food look good on your plate, or eat with family or friends as often as you can. When you're happy and relaxed, it may be easier to eat than it is when you're feeling rushed or less engaged.

9. Consider Liquid Meals

If you can’t eat at all, or you aren’t getting enough calories, try liquid options instead. Smoothies, milkshakes, and even nutritional meal replacements might be good options for you. It can take some trial and error to figure out what food tastes good and what gets you the calories you need. You may choose to use these as nutritional supplements instead of meal replacements, too.

Liquid meals are often discussed on MyLungCancerTeam. One member shared, “I lost my appetite and live on fresh fruit, a little honey, and protein drinks.”

10. Cleanse Your Palate Before Eating

If you have an unusual taste in your mouth, or things just don’t taste quite right, try cleansing your palate with some frozen fruit or sorbet before you eat. Removing the bad taste can help you feel more like eating what’s in front of you. Also, try using plastic utensils over metal if you continue to have taste changes.

11. Reduce or Avoid Food Smells

If the smell of your food is bothering you, try preparing it or eating it in such a way that you can’t smell it. Cold or room-temperature food will smell less. You could also try eating soups out of a container that has a cover, and make sure you stay away from rooms where food is being cooked.

12. Use Alcohol To Stimulate Your Appetite

If you like alcohol and your health care team approves, a small alcoholic beverage with your food may help you eat more. Make sure you don’t fill up on alcohol but, instead, use it to help you eat more.

13. Try Cannabis To Boost Your Appetite

Using cannabis may help you feel hungrier. Talk to your doctor before you choose this option, as it may have other side effects that make you feel worse. It could take some trial and error to figure out when to use cannabis, which type works best, and how much to use so it helps you eat more at mealtimes. Talk to your doctor about other appetite-stimulant options, including prescriptions that contain cannabinoids.

Talk to Your Doctor About Loss of Appetite

Talk to your cancer care team as soon as possible if you don’t have an appetite — especially if you're losing weight without trying. That way, you can address the problem and come up with a plan before you become weak and tired or develop malnutrition.

Your oncology team should be able to come up with ideas. An oncologist may refer you to a registered dietitian who specializes in nutrition in cancer care. They may also suggest speaking to a specialist in palliative care. These health professionals focus on helping you feel your best at any stage of cancer. They can help you find ways to manage any symptoms or side effects that are making it harder to eat, for instance, mouth sores or shortness of breath.

Find Your Team

On MyLungCancerTeam, more than 12,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Have you lost your appetite after being diagnosed with or pursuing treatment for lung cancer? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on June 12, 2024
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    Kathryn Shohara, MS, RDN, LDN, CNSC is a clinical dietitian for adults at Baylor Scott & White Hospitals. Learn more about her here.
    Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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