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Serving Up Tips for Regaining a Lost Appetite

by Kalli Castille, MS, RD, LD

Wellness image

A nutritionally balanced diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. This is especially vital when you’re fighting cancer. Good nutrition helps keep your body and immune system strong to help prevent malnutrition and other complications that could interrupt your treatment.

Unfortunately, when you’re in cancer treatment, side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and taste changes can decrease your appetite. It’s hard to get the nutri­tion you need when you just don’t feel like eating, so it’s imperative to be pre­pared for low-appetite days. Talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian about the specific dietary guidelines you should be following. Then, consider these tips for regaining a lost appetite, and set daily nutrition goals based on your needs:

Focus on eating small, frequent meals every three to four hours. Each meal should contain a high-quality protein source, such as a handful of almonds.

Make sure each bite you take is rich in nutrients. This means bypassing that prepackaged snack cake and instead reaching for foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, such as hummus and celery.

Easy-to-prepare foods are best. Recipes that require little effort will take the stress out of food preparation.

Colder foods seem to be better toler­ated when early satiety is an issue. Cold or room temperature foods also tend to release less of an aroma, which may be helpful if strong smells make you feel queasy. Try cold sandwiches, main-dish salads (such as pasta salad or chicken salad), or nut butter with fruit preserves.

Visually appealing meals with a variety of colors and textures may help increase your appetite and desire to eat more.

Take your medications with a protein drink to sneak in some extra calories.

If sitting down to a full meal seems daunting, you can replace a large, heavy meal with a quick and easy snack. Try these options:

  • Yogurt with granola, nuts, or seeds
  • Cottage cheese with fruits or vegetables
  • Half a sandwich with nitrate-free lunch­meat topped with vegetables and cheese
  • Cooled soup with crackers
  • Baked potato with cottage cheese, vegetables or salsa, and low-fat sour cream
  • Burrito with black or pinto beans and cheese
  • Scrambled eggs with salsa or chopped vegetables
  • Whole-wheat waffles or pancakes with peanut butter
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Oatmeal with berries, nuts, or seeds
  • Salad with nuts and avocados

Meals with a variety of colors and textures may help
increase your appetite.

Author of Article photo

Kalli Castille

When Food Just Doesn’t Taste Like It Should
Sometimes poor appetite is due to taste changes. Certain foods may no longer taste the same as they used to, or they may have no taste at all. If this is the case, here are some additional tips to consider:

Add a slice of lemon to a glass of water and drink a bit just before eating to help your food taste better. You can try other citrus fruits, such as limes and oranges, as well.

Foods often taste metallic during treatment. Try meals with sweet and sour flavor combinations. Top fish with a fruit relish, squirt lemon or lime juice over chicken, or use a sweet and sour dipping sauce.

Maintain good oral hygiene, and use mouth-care products designed to help with dry mouth, which can be a cause of taste changes.

Don’t be afraid to try different foods. Something that tastes bad one day may taste fine the next. Some foods that you disliked before may actually taste quite pleasant now.

If foods taste metallic, eat with plasticware instead of metal forks or spoons.

Taking a zinc supplement can be helpful; however, you should talk with your doctor before you begin taking any supplements.

If you have taste aversions to red meat, switch to chicken, turkey, and blander protein foods.

In addition to these strategies, your doctor may recommend medications to help stimulate your appetite. If your decreased appetite lasts for several days, or if you’re losing a lot of weight without trying, contact your doctor. He or she can help you get back on track with the balanced diet you need in or­der to defeat cancer.

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Kalli Castille is director of Nutritional Support and Culinary at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Southwestern Regional Medical Center in Tulsa, OK, ( Kalli is currently serving a two-year term as Oklahoma State Representative for the Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She has also served as president of the Oklahoma Dietetic Association, which she has been a member of since 2001.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2015.