Changes in Appetite
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.
Managing Changes in Appetite
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.
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:
- Mild, brief exercise can stimulate appetite.
- If emotions and stress are affecting appetite, then mind-body approaches may help.
- Acupuncture/acupressure may help in addressing appetite directly and/or in relieving symptoms such as pain or nausea.
- Some natural products that relieve appetite-affecting symptoms may also be helpful, such as ginger for nausea. Search our Therapy Summaries for a full list of products.
- Some traditional herbal teas may stimulate appetite:4
- Gentian extract (from bitters) (WebMD) may stimulate appetite.5
- Supplementation with zinc (About Herbs) or omega 3 fatty acids may be helpful.6
- Medical cannabis may be recommended to improve appetite, but clinical evidence to date is insufficient to support its use.7
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.|
- Programs and protocols
- Traditional systems
Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on December 15, 2019.
- National Cancer Institute: Appetite Loss and Cancer Treatment
- American Society of Clinical Oncology:
- Iannotta J, Bratton S. The Meals to Heal Cookbook: 150 Easy, Nutritionally Balanced Recipes to Nourish You during Your Fight with Cancer. Boston, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press. 2017.
- Katz R, Edelson M. The Cancer Fighting Kitchen. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press. 2017.
- Plotnikoff GA. Introduction: what to eat when you can't eat. Global Advances in Health and Medicine. 2014 Nov;3(6):56-72.
- Gurdev Parmar and Tina Kaczor: Textbook of Naturopathic Oncology
- Helpsy Inc.: Helpsy Health
- Block KI, Block PB, Gyllenhaal C: Integrative Treatment for Colorectal Cancer
- Wayne Jonas, MD: Your Healing Journey: A Patient’s Guide to Integrative Breast Cancer Care
- United Patients Group: Informative Videos on Medical Cannabis & Marijuana
- American Society of Clinical Oncology: Cancer.Net
- Raymond Chang, MD: Beyond the Magic Bullet: The Anti-Cancer Cocktail
- Donald I. Abrams, MD, and Andrew T. Weil, MD: Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition
- Neil McKinney, BSc, ND: Naturopathic Oncology, 3rd Edition
- Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, and Karolyn Gazella: The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 3rd Edition
- Keith I. Block, MD: Life over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment
- Michael Lerner: Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer