Low appetite

Appetite loss is a symptom experienced by many patients with cancer. This information will help you understand why you may not feel like eating, what you can do to help, and when you should call your health care team.

Why don't I feel like eating?

  • Many things affect the part of our brain that tells us we are hungry. For example when people have the flu they usually don't feel hungry. The same thing can happen to people living with cancer. Many things can cause a poor appetite including:
    • The cancer itself
    • Side effects from chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy
    • Medications that cause nausea and vomiting
    • Other symptoms like pain, constipation, and diarrhea
    • Feeling sad, depressed or anxious
  • You may lose your appetite or not like food in the same way you once did. These changes can cause you to lose weight
  • Having cancer and being treated for it may mean that your body needs more energy and protein
  • If you don't get enough nutrients from food you may lose weight

What can I do if I am losing weight or to make sure I am eating enough?

  • Make every mouthful count by choosing foods and drinks that are high in protein and high in calories, such as:
    • Milk, soy milk, milkshakes, smoothies, chocolate milk
    • Cream soups
    • Puddings, ice cream, yogurt
    • Cheese
    • High protein/high calorie drinks like Ensure, Boost or Carnation Breakfast Anytime
    • Nuts and seeds
  • Try eating small amounts of food every 1 to 2 hours, even if you don't feel like eating
  • Keep foods that are high in protein and high in calories and quick and easy snacks in your cupboards or with you so that they are there when you are ready to eat
  • Eat your favorite foods at any time of the day
  • Eat breakfast foods at suppertime if you feel like it
  • Drink protein and calorie drinks when you cannot eat solid food
  • Eat your biggest meal when you feel most hungry
  • Exercise lightly if you can. A walk before meals can help make your appetite better

It is important to keep eating. Remember, every mouthful counts.

How can eating well help me?

Eating well will help you:

  • Maintain your weight
  • Get better faster
  • Feel energized and strong
  • Deal with the side effects of your treatment better

Even after improving all the factors that are treatable, your appetite may still be poor. If you are upset by your loss of appetite, appetite stimulation medications might help. Speak with your health care team or one of our dietitians for more information.

When should I call my health care team about my appetite?

Call your health care team if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting that does not get better
  • Can not eat for a day or more
  • Weight loss of 5 pounds or more
  • Pain when eating
  • Can not urinate for an entire day
  • No bowel movement for more than 2 days

What can my family do to help?

  • The best way your family can help is by not forcing you to eat too much.
  • It can be hard for your family to understand why you don't feel like eating.
  • It is important for family members to know that by talking too much about your appetite they can make you feel worse.
  • Sometimes you may feel guilty about having a poor appetite.
  • Your family and friends should try to support you in eating what you want, when you want to.

Are there any classes or people at the Odette Cancer Centre to help deal with my change in appetite?

Yes. We have a Patient and Family Nutrition Resource Centre where you can get advice and help with low appetite. The centre can be found
on the ground floor across from Druxy's.

Please come to our Nutrition and Cancer class at the Patient Education Learning Centre (PEARL) on the 1st floor beside Main Reception. You can call us: 416.480.4534 or email us: patienteducation@sunnybrook.ca

How can my health care team help with low appetite?

  • It is important to find out and understand why your appetite is poor. If your pain is poorly controlled we can help to make it better which could help your appetite get better
  • If you have nausea or feel sick to your stomach we can help you
  • If you are depressed or anxious, this can affect your appetite
  • If you are on medications that might lower your appetite we may be able to try another medication
  • For all of the factors that might cause your loss of appetite we will work to improve the ones we can help make better

Managing loss of appetite: soup, smoothie and snack recipes


Please remember: If you have a loss of appetite for many days or if you have other side effects that stop you from eating or drinking, ask your health care team about how you can see one of our Registered Dietitians at the Odette Cancer Centre or call 416-480-4623.

To get help with low appetite please talk to your health care team or visit the Patient and Family Support Program on the ground floor of the Odette Cancer Centre or call 416-480-4623.

You can find information, videos, books, web sites and other help for low appetite at the Patient Education Learning Centre (PEARL) on the first floor of the Odette Cancer Centre or by emailing patienteducation@sunnybrook.ca or calling 416-480-4534

Patient symptom management guide

Click here to download a copy of Cancer Care Ontario’s patient symptom management guide.
Copies of this resource are also available in simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, French, Spanish and Tamil. Email patienteducation@sunnybrook.ca to ask for a translated copy.