Iris Oncology

12 Strategies for Managing Loss of Appetite and Weight Loss

When going through cancer treatment you may find yourself turned off by the sight, smell, and taste of some foods — even those you typically enjoy. This loss of appetite or reduced ability to eat can be related to:  

  • Treatment and other medications  

  • Emotional stress   

  • Fatigue  

  • The disease itself  

  • A combination of all the above  

If food is unappealing, smells are bothersome, taste is off, or it’s painful to chew and swallow, it’s not surprising that you may eat smaller portions, or you may skip meals entirely. When this happens, it may result in unwanted weight loss, which can be stressful for you and your family.

During treatment, maintaining a stable weight as much as possible can enhance quality of life and tolerance to treatment. 

12 Ways to Manage Loss of Appetite and Weight Loss

1. Focus on Calories and Protein: Calories fuel vital functions in the body like your heart beating, breathing, digestion, muscle movement, and immune system working at its best. Your body needs more protein during cancer treatment because protein is the “building block” for all the cells in the body. Examples of protein-rich foods include fish, poultry, yogurt, tofu, eggs, lentils, beans, nuts, and nut butters.

2. Eat Mini Meals: If you’re finding it difficult to eat much at once, shift to a pattern of eating smaller “mini meals” more frequently — 5-6 times — through the day. This can help you get enough calories to stabilize your weight.  To make this more pleasant try combining eating with other activities you enjoy like listening to music, watching a show, reading a book or magazine, or connecting in person or online with a loved one.

3. Use Small Plates: When food is unappealing, large plates of food can be overwhelming. Serve food on small (5-8 inch) plates or ramekins and smoothies in smaller cups. This may feel more achievable and be less likely to trigger aversions .

4. Try Cold, Odorless Foods: Food odors can be a turn-off. Cold or room-temperature foods that don’t smell may be better tolerated. Try serving protein (tofu, sliced turkey, or chicken) cold instead of hot, and vegetables (raw or roasted) straight from the fridge instead of piping-hot cooked versions. Cold pasta salad and dishes like chicken salad, potato salad, and egg salad can also be served well-chilled.

5. Add to Soups: Soup can be a common go-to comfort food when you aren’t feeling well. Pea and bean soups, chowders, and cream soups can be good sources of calories and protein. If broth-based soups work better for you, try to choose options that include chicken, fish, tofu, and or beans for added protein. To increase the nutritional value of a soup meal, add half a grilled cheese or other protein-containing sandwich (like sliced turkey or roast beef, tuna or egg salad, or peanut butter and jelly), a few crackers with cheese or nut butter, or Greek yogurt to boost overall nutrition. 

6. Drink More Between Meals: Your stomach expands with eating and drinking, which contributes to the feeling of fullness. To mitigate this feeling, drink most of your fluids between rather than with your meals. 

7. Supplement with Small Protein Shakes: Protein shakes — either homemade or store-bought — can be helpful for boosting your calorie and protein intake. Protein shakes may be better tolerated in smaller portions, so serve them in 4 to 8-ounce cups, storing any remaining shake in the refrigerator for later in the day. It’s best to take protein shakes two hours before a meal to prevent them from affecting your mealtime appetite. 

8. Maintain Physical Activity:  Physical activity may increase your appetite and interest in eating. Whether indoors or outside, aim to move around as much as possible, even if it’s just for a few minutes. 

9. Manage Side Effects That May Affect Your Interest in Eating: Nausea, constipation, diarrhea, taste changes, and mouth sores can all affect your ability to eat. Our Iris care team can help you manage these issues during treatment.

10. Consider Medications and Other Therapies to Improve Appetite: Some appetite-stimulating medications may help increase your interest in eating. Speak to your clinical team to determine if they are safe and appropriate for you. Using medical cannabis as an appetite stimulant or for managing nausea may also be an option. Laws around the availability of medical cannabis vary from state to state. Speak to an Iris Nurse Navigator to learn more about this option. 

11. Shop for On-the-Go Snacks (ahead of time): When you need to snack between events on your schedule like appointments, work, school, etc. it can help to have a section of your fridge and/or cupboard stocked with portable, prepared snacks for grab-n-go. Examples of things you might keep on hand in the fridge are clementines, apples, cheese sticks, baby carrots, plain Greek yogurt sticks, or hard-boiled eggs. Some cupboard/pantry snack options include whole wheat woven crackers, nuts, and trail mix, roasted edamame, or chickpeas.

12. Add Extra calories Wherever You Can: An easy way to increase calories is to add certain fats to food. Here are some examples of how you can bump up the calories in what you’re eating so every bite contains as much nutrition as possible:

  • Cook eggs and other pan-fried foods in oil. Drizzle oil into soups, pastas, and vegetable and rice dishes. You can also add neutral-tasting oils like avocado and canola oil to smoothies. All oils add 40 calories per teaspoon (120 calories per tablespoon).    

  • Spread tub spreads or butter on toast, muffins, pancakes, French toast, potatoes, vegetables, and anywhere else it may be appealing. Adds 30 – 40 calories per teaspoon.  

  • Add nut butters (peanut, almond, cashew, sunflower butter) to crackers, toast, muffins, sandwiches, smoothies, and fruit (like bananas or apples). Adds 95 – 100 calories per tablespoon.  

  • Sprinkle nuts on cereals, salads, fruit cups, ice cream, puddings, and yogurts, or snack on them between meals. On average adds 200 calories per ¼ cup.   

  • Use sliced or mashed avocado to add calories and creaminess to toast, eggs, sandwiches, and salads, or with tortilla chips as guacamole. Adds 100 calories per 1/3 avocado, or 30 calories per 2 tablespoons of guacamole.  

  • Top bagels or toast with cream cheese (50 calories/tablespoon), and sour cream (30 calories/tablespoon) to potatoes or chili. 


This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.