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Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Treatment of Symptoms

When side effects of cancer or cancer treatment affect normal eating, changes can be made to help the patient get the nutrients needed. Medicines may be given to increase appetite. Eating foods that are high in calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals is usually best. Meals should be planned to meet the patient's nutrition needs and tastes in food. The following are some of the more common symptoms caused by cancer and cancer treatment and ways to treat or control them.

Anorexia

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Anorexia (the loss of appetite or desire to eat) is one of the most common problems for cancer patients. Eating in a calm, comfortable place and getting regular exercise may improve appetite. The following may help cancer patients who have a loss of appetite:

  • Eat small high-protein and high-calorie meals every 1-2 hours instead of three large meals. The following are high-calorie, high-protein food choices:
    • Cheese and crackers.
    • Muffins.
    • Puddings.
    • Nutritional supplements.
    • Milkshakes.
    • Yogurt.
    • Ice cream.
    • Powdered milk added to foods such as pudding, milkshakes, or any recipe using milk.
    • Finger foods (handy for snacking) such as deviled eggs, deviled ham on crackers, or cream cheese or peanut butter on crackers or celery.
    • Chocolate.
  • Add extra calories and protein to food by using butter, skim milk powder, honey, or brown sugar.
  • Drink liquid supplements (special drinks that have nutrients), soups, milk, juices, shakes, and smoothies, if eating solid food is a problem.
  • Eat breakfasts that have one third of the calories and protein needed for the day.
  • Eat snacks that have plenty of calories and protein.
  • Eat foods that smell good. Strong odors can be avoided in the following ways:
    • Use boiling bags or microwave steaming bags.
    • Cook outdoors on the grill.
    • Use a kitchen fan when cooking.
    • Serve cold food instead of hot (since odors are in the rising steam).
    • Take off any food covers to release the odors before going into a patient's room.
    • Use a small fan to blow food odors away from patients.
    • Order take-out food.
  • Try new foods and new recipes, flavorings, spices, and foods with a different texture or thickness. Food likes and dislikes may change from day to day.
  • Plan menus ahead of time and get help preparing meals.
  • Make and store small amounts of favorite foods so they are ready to eat when hungry.

See the NCI Web site for Eating Hints: Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment, which has recipes such as Lactose-Free Double Chocolate Pudding, Banana Milkshake, and Fruit and Cream. For a free copy of this booklet, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Taste Changes

Changes in how foods taste may be caused by radiation treatment, dental problems, mouth sores and infections, or some medicines. Many cancer patients who receive chemotherapy notice a bitter taste or other changes in their sense of taste. A sudden dislike for certain foods may occur. This can cause a loss of appetite, weight loss, and a decreased quality of life. Some or all of a normal sense of taste may return, but it may take up to a year after treatment ends. The following may help cancer patients who have taste changes:

  • Eat small meals and healthy snacks several times a day.
  • Eat meals when hungry rather than at set mealtimes.
  • Eat favorite foods and try new foods when feeling best.
  • Eat poultry, fish, eggs, and cheese instead of red meat.
  • Eat citrus fruits (oranges, tangerines, lemons, grapefruit) unless mouth sores are present.
  • Add spices and sauces to foods.
  • Eat meat with something sweet, such as cranberry sauce, jelly, or applesauce.
  • Find nonmeat, high-protein recipes in a vegetarian or Chinese cookbook.
  • Use sugar-free lemon drops, gum, or mints if there is a metallic or bitter taste in the mouth.
  • Rinse mouth with water before eating.
  • Eat with family and friends.
  • Have others prepare the meal.
  • Use plastic utensils if foods have a metal taste.
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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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