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16th March 2020

How to cope with loss of appetite

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If you’re living with lung cancer, you may, at times, experience a loss of appetite, as well as difficulty with chewing and swallowing. This is very common, with up to 9 out 10 people with advanced cancer losing their appetite to some extent.

Certain treatments can also have an impact on your appetite. Chemotherapy, for example, can change the way food tastes or smells.

It is important to try and eat well, particularly when you are undergoing treatment for lung cancer. So, as part of Nutrition and Hydration week, we spoke to dietitian, Rebecca Little, about the little ways you can help manage a poor appetite.

Reduce the tension

Whenever someone isn’t feeling well, we tend to offer food as solace. It’s a very British thing to do! This is often exacerbated when a person has lung cancer. We want to try and help. Cooking and encouraging them to eat is one way we can do that.

However, whilst well meaning, if you are having difficulty eating this can create a pressure around food and mealtime and can make the situation worse. It’s therefore important to try and limit the amount of tension around food.

Instead of having set mealtimes, try and eat smaller amount food regularly. A big plate of food can be quite overwhelming, whereas smaller meals can feel more achievable. Try not to get cross or upset if you can’t eat it as this will only cause more tension and anxiety.

Type of food

If chewing and swallowing is making eating difficult, you may find it easier to try softer, moist foods such as:

  • Nourishing soups
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Pasta in a cheesy sauce
  • Vegetable bakes
  • Fish or mince with mashed potatoes.

Slow cookers can also be a great addition to the kitchen. They can make preparing meals a lot easier. They soften food and many dishes prepared in a slow cooker can be batched up and frozen. 

Try and have good protein sources at each meal and some for snacks. Good examples of protein-rich food are eggs, meat, fish, soya, Quorn, milk, beans, pulses, nuts, nut butter, seeds and quinoa.

People with lung cancer often experience weight loss, both prior to diagnosis and during treatment. You can add extra calories to food by adding butter, olive oil, grated cheese, cream cheese or cream to savoury foods. You can also use mayonnaise, salad dressing and olive oil in soups and on bread, whilst puddings can be enriched with cream, evaporated milk, ice cream, dried fruit, honey, jam or syrup.

Try your favourite foods but do so with caution. If treatment is affecting your taste, you don’t want to taint your favourites.

What to do when you’re too tired

Another symptom and side effect of lung cancer and lung cancer treatment is tiredness. This too can impact on what you eat – you’re too tired to cook, but if you could prepare and eat something nutritious, it could help improve your fatigue. It’s a vicious cycle.

Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask family and friends to prepare meals you can freeze. They want to help, so take them up on the offer.

Stock up on ready meals, as well as convenience food like soups, from the supermarket so all you need to do is pop it in the microwave or oven. You can order online or ask a friend or relative to go to the shop for you. There are also frozen meal companies who prepare and deliver quick, tasty and nourishing meals to your door.

Other tips to improve your appetite

Many people with lung cancer find the smell of food can put you off eating. Eating cold or room-temperature food can reduce some food smells and avoid cooking greasy foods.

Fresh air can stimulate appetite. If you feel up to it, try and go for a little walk outside before mealtimes. If this is too much, or you are not very mobile, simply sitting by an opening window can also have the desired effect.

If you are feeling nauseous, many people find ginger can help settle their stomach. Try sipping ginger tea, ginger beer and ginger ale, or nibbling on a ginger biscuit. Fizzy drinks can sometimes alleviate nausea as the carbonation reduces the acidity in your stomach.

Something is better than nothing

If you aren’t able to eat at all, try a nourishing drink. Add three to four tablespoons of skimmed milk powder to a pint of full fat milk. You can then use this in tea or coffee or blend with milkshake powder, fruit or ice cream. Just make sure you keep it in the fridge and use within 24 hours.

There are also nutritional supplements available which can be added to your food. Your doctor, nurse or dietitian can prescribe these for you and give you guidance on the recommended quantities. The most important thing to remember is if you have any concerns or what advice about nutrition, speak to your healthcare team.