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Cancer Health Center

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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.


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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.
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