Changes in Appetite

Key Points

  • Many factors can contribute to changes in appetite.
  • Significant weight gain during cancer treatment may affect your health and ability to undergo treatment.
  • Ongoing lack of appetite may lead to serious complications including weight loss, a lack of necessary nutrients, and loss of muscle mass and strength.
  • Many complementary approaches may be helpful with appetite changes.
  • To avoid or manage interactions with treatments and other therapies, tell your healthcare providers about all the therapies and approaches you are using or considering.

Appetite changes, whether an increase or decrease in customary appetite, are very common in people with cancer, especially those in cancer treatment and those with advanced cancer. Some common contributors to changes in appetite:

  • Certain drugs, such as steroids used to treat some cancers and/or to manage symptoms, may increase appetite.
  • Antidepressants can increase or decrease appetite.
  • Chemotherapy for breast cancer may cause some women to experience intense food cravings.
  • Some symptoms of cancer or side effects of cancer treatment can decrease appetite: nausea, mouth sores, dry mouth, fatigue, pain, tumor pressure on organs, bloating and constipation.
  • Emotions such as depression and anxiety can affect appetite.
  • The cancer itself can decrease appetite and cause anorexia by secreting chemicals that signal “fullness” to the satiety center of your brain.
  • Taste changes that make foods taste unpleasant and unappetizing may also affect appetite.
  • Increased sensitivity to food odors can also cause nausea and decrease appetite.

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Managing Changes in Appetite

Helpsy Health

Even when people are getting the best of cancer treatment, they often feel like they need more help with organizing their care and managing symptoms and side effects. Helpsy empowers members to take control of their health through a real-time virtual nurse support service. This service is available via mobile devices, a Helpsy website and automated phone calls.

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Many complementary approaches may be helpful with appetite changes. Because some supplements and other therapies can cause adverse effects or interfere with other therapies, be sure to have your doctor or pharmacist check for interactions. Tell your healthcare providers about all the therapies and approaches you are using or considering.

  • Dietary strategies such as eating six small meals throughout the day and eating a variety of nutrient-dense high-protein, high-calorie foods can help with reduced appetite.
  • Small adjustments in seasonings can make a big difference in how food tastes.
  • For more information on dietary strategies, refer to these resources:

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In addition to complementary therapies, consider seeing a professional such as a therapist, oncology social worker or oncology navigator to help you explore your stressful situation and identify an approach that is right for you.

Integrative Programs, Protocols and Medical Systems

For more information about programs and protocols, see our Integrative Programs and Protocols page.

Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on December 15, 2019.

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