What to Do When Cancer Treatment Makes it Hard to Eat

Cancer treatments can make you lose your appetite, develop sores or dry mouth that make eating challenging, or make food taste metallic or bad.

There may be times when you or a loved one living with cancer don’t feel like eating- but keep in mind the many benefits of eating nutritious food while living with cancer! It gives you more energy and helps you maintain a healthy weight, which can lessen side effects from treatment, lower your risk of infection, help your body rebuild muscle, and help you avoid missing treatment (download our free cancer nutrition guide to learn more).

If cancer is making it hard to eat, try some of these tips to help you feel more hungry or make food taste better:

I’m not hungry…

  • Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day
  • Have a big breakfast if you feel most hungry in the morning.
  • Try liquid nutrition supplements when you are not feeling up to eating, or make your own nutrient-dense smoothies
  • If you fill up quickly, avoid drinking fluids with meals. Save beverages for 1-2 hours before and after meals

My food and drinks don’t taste or smell good anymore…

  • If water has a metallic taste, add slices of lemon, lime, or orange
  • If food has a metallic taste, use plastic utensils
  • Season and marinate food with citrus, onion, fresh/dried herbs, and/or garlic

I have diarrhea…

  • Focus on easy-to-digest, low-fiber foods to help decrease stool frequency: bananas, applesauce, white rice/pasta/bread, cream of wheat, and cooked fruits and vegetables without skins and seeds
  • Stay hydrated
  • Avoid sugar alcohols/substitutes like mannitol, xylitol, sorbitol, and sucralose
  • If you’re lactose intolerant, avoid milk and foods made with dairy products

I’m constipated…

  • Focus on high-fiber foods like whole grains (brown rice, barley, oats, whole grain bread), fruits/vegetables (especially those with edible seeds and skins), beans, and nuts
  • Drink plenty of water, especially while increasing fiber
  • Sip on warm liquids (tea, broth, etc.)

I am nauseous and/or vomiting…

  • Avoid foods that are high in fat, greasy, spicy, overly sweet, or have strong odors
  • Drink cool, clear liquids

I have sores in my mouth and/or throat…

  • Avoid food that is very hot or very cold in temperature
  • Eat soft foods with sauces, gravy, and/or dressing, or try moistening foods with broth/stock
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages, citrus, caffeine, tomatoes, vinegar, and spicy foods

I have thickened saliva or a dry mouth, which makes it hard to swallow…

  • Avoid alcoholic beverages and alcohol-containing mouthwashes/rinses
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially ones that thin saliva like club soda, seltzer water, and papaya nectar
  • If you don’t have mouth sores, eat tart foods to help stimulate saliva production

I’m too tired to eat and/or I keep losing weight…

Try to eat something…even one or two bites! This can help stimulate your appetite.  Get the most out of the foods you do eat by focusing on:

  • Foods high in calories/nutrients, like nuts, nut butter, and avocado
  • High-protein foods, such as chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and beans
  • Dairy products that contain fat, such as whole milk and whole milk yogurt or cottage cheese
  • Liquid nutrition supplements and/or nutrient dense smoothies
  • Healthy, unsaturated fats like olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, or canola oil

Want more info like this? Download our free cancer nutrition guide »

And remember, if your symptoms are especially troublesome, talk to your health care team about your concerns. There may be changes to your treatment, medications that can help.