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Dear Iris: When Cravings Hit

Dear Iris,

Since starting treatment, I just don’t feel like eating. I’m not hungry or interested in food. Even now and then I do get a craving for something — typically it’s something fried or sweet. When I act on these cravings, I immediately feel bad about it. To make it worse, my family comes down on me hard telling me that I shouldn’t be eating those foods. It feels like a no-win game. I eat when I’m finally hungry, but then I have to restrict myself. What should I do?


Dear K,

I want to start by validating how you feel. Cancer and cancer treatment can have a major impact on appetite and enjoyment of food. These changes can be abrupt, complex, and deeply personal, and I applaud your efforts in seeking support.

My first suggestion is that you follow your instincts and eat what your body is asking for. I know that might sound counterintuitive (or maybe even scary), but as a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist specializing in cancer, here’s my reasoning:

  • There’s no such thing as perfect eating, even during a cancer journey.  

  • When you’re not too interested in food it becomes even more important to eat what and when something calls to you. Restricting what you eat can lead to bigger nutrition and mental health challenges.  

  • Satisfying your cravings doesn’t mean you have to give up on nutritional value! In fact, there are oodles of nutrient-rich recipes that deliver on the smells, mouthfeels, and flavors you’re craving.

My second suggestion has to do with feeling bad after eating certain foods and the flak you’re getting from people around you. For these challenges, I recommend an effective and empowering approach called Mindful Self-Compassion. It’s a practice pioneered by psychologists Kristen Neff, PhD and Christopher Germer, PhD, with a strong body of scientific research proving the benefits.

Mindful Self-Compassion as it relates to eating is learning how to be a friend to yourself when it comes to food. An example of how Mindful Self-Compassion can help when you’re feeling bad about eating certain foods is by asking you: What would you say to a close friend who tells you they’re feeling guilty for eating fried/sweet foods?

I’m guessing you wouldn’t say to your friend the same unhelpful things you might say to yourself. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mindful Self-Compassion. This practice teaches you new skills for coping with the big and little things in life, so you learn to relate to yourself and others with greater compassion and ease.

I hope you eat what you crave and delve into Mindful Self-Compassion. Our Iris Mental Health and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist teams are available to guide your learning and development in both pursuits!

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Stephanie Meyers, MS, RD, LDN

Senior Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist

Iris Oncology

Stephanie Meyers is a Senior Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist at Iris Oncology with 25 years of experience delivering compassionate and evidence-based nutrition care to those affected by cancer. She’s the former Nutrition Manager at The Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and presents seminars worldwide on mindful eating, family nutrition, and cancer survivorship. Stephanie is also the author of, End the Mealtime Meltdown: Using The Table Talk Method to Free Your Family From Daily Food Struggles and Picky Eating and the founder of Families Eating Well, a nutrition practice helping parents coach healthy eating skills in kids. 

If you’d like to read more about Mindful Self-Compassion, this workbook is a great place to start. 

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.