Lung cancer can affect your appetite in several ways. Here are some of the most common reasons why your appetite may be lower when you have lung cancer:
- Digestive changes. Chemotherapy can cause many digestive side effects. These include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. All of these can decrease your interest in eating.
- Damage caused by radiation therapy. Radiation therapy to the lungs can damage the esophagus since it is in the same area. The esophagus is the tube that connects your throat to your stomach. Damage to the esophagus can prevent you from swallowing.
- Mouth sores. Some people have mouth sores as a side effect of chemotherapy. When you have a sore mouth, you find it hard to eat and certain foods can be irritating.
- Medications that affect appetite. Lack of appetite may be a side effect of some targeted therapies for non-small cell lung cancer, according to the
American Cancer Society (ACS).
- Tired. A review of studies reported that between 57 and 100% of people with lung cancer will experience fatigue. Fatigue is often accompanied by pain, sleep disturbances and depression. Feeling tired makes it difficult to eat and prepare food.
- Shortness of breath. When you feel short of breath, you need extra energy to breathe, and it can be difficult to coordinate breathing and eating at the same time. Shortness of breath also makes it harder to shop for groceries and prepare food.
- Changes in hunger signals. Normal hunger and satiety signals in the body are driven by a variety of chemical messengers. Cancer cells release proteins that interfere with these signals, reducing your appetite.
Your body needs a variety of nutrients from food to function at its best. When you have lung cancer, your nutrient needs increase. It may seem unfair that eating is so difficult at a time when nutrition is so important.
According to the National Cancer Institute of
- lower energy levels
- loss of muscle and feeling weak
- less tolerance to treatment
- decreased immune function
Without enough good nutrients, you can experience the side effects of deficiencies, including iron deficiency anemia.
There are many strategies you can try to increase your nutrient intake when your appetite is low. The things that may work for you will depend on your dietary challenges. It may take some trial and error before you find the things that work for you.
Ask your loved ones and healthcare team for help — they are there to support you. Be honest about what you need help with and how they can help you.
Try soft foods
If mouth sores or changes in your ability to swallow prevent you from eating, try softer foods, recommends the
- canned fruit
Soft foods may also be easier on your digestive system. Swallowing problems related to radiation therapy often get better after the treatments are finished.
Try bland foods
Bland foods may be better tolerated if you feel nauseous or have mouth sores. Bland foods are those that lack strong flavors or spices.
These foods are easier to digest and won’t cause more irritation to your mouth.
Some examples are:
- White bread
- plain pasta
- canned fruit
- cooked vegetables
- meat, chicken and fish without sauce
Eating cold or room-temperature foods can also help if strong tastes or smells bother you.
Try nutritional supplements
Sometimes it’s easier to drink instead of eat solid foods. Nutritional supplement drinks can give you extra nutrients when your appetite is low.
You can use them as meal replacements or sip them throughout the day. Smoothies or shakes that you make at home are another way to get more nutrients in liquid form.
Eat small, frequent meals
Do your best to eat something small every few hours throughout the day. Rather than trying three large meals, aim for six to eight small meals or snacks.
This way of eating may be easier to tolerate if you have digestive issues. It may also seem more manageable with a low appetite.
Many people find that they get full quickly and that one large meal is just too much. It can be helpful to set alarms to remind you to eat more often.
Choose drinks wisely
Focus on eating solid foods at meals with only small sips of liquids so they don’t fill you up too much. Drink between meals to stay hydrated.
Do your best to drink beverages with extra calories. Juice, milk or sports drinks will give you more calories than water.
Boost your calories
If eating more is difficult, consider adding more nutrients to what you can eat.
- Add extra oils and butter during cooking and to your meals.
- Avoid anything labeled low fat or low calorie.
- Use high-fat dairy products like whole yogurt, whole milk, cream, and cheese.
- Consider adding powdered milk to cream soups, mashed potatoes, yogurt, pudding or casseroles.
- Add nuts, seeds or nut butter to meals and snacks.
- Add sauces or spreads such as butter, gravy, mayonnaise or dressings whenever you can.
Take a blood test
Many people with lung cancer develop anemia, especially after chemotherapy treatment. Anemia occurs when your red blood cell count drops too low.
In a 2018 study, about 34% of people with lung cancer had anemia before undergoing treatment. This number rose to 66% for those who had received chemotherapy.
Anemia can make you feel even lower in energy and less motivated to eat. Ask your doctor about your blood levels and whether an iron supplement might help.
Request a Medication Review
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to learn more about your medications. Ask about side effects and if there are alternatives. Lung cancer drugs can cause loss of appetite or other symptoms that affect your food intake.
Your dose of medicine may be adjusted or taken at a different time of day to help reduce appetite.
If you have problems with pain and nausea, there may be other medications that can help manage these symptoms.
Keep simple snacks handy
Make sure there are plenty of ready-to-eat options available to you. Fatigue and shortness of breath can make food preparation difficult. When it’s time to eat, it’s good to have lots of quick choices on hand.
Here are some ideas of
- pre-sliced cheese
- ready-to-use smoothies
- trail mix
- granola bars
- pre-washed and cut fruits and vegetables
Get help with groceries or meals
If you feel tired and out of breath, going to the grocery store can be a daunting task. Ask a friend or family member to help you with your shopping. You can also consider using a grocery delivery system.
If you’re feeling low on energy, food preparation can also be difficult. Family or friends may be happy to bring you meals. Be specific about the types of foods you prefer or need to feel nourished. There are also meal delivery programs where you can order prepared meals.
Batch cooked meals
If you feel ready to cook, prepare meals that create leftovers, such as:
- pasta dishes
You can freeze individual portions. That way, when the time comes when you need a meal but aren’t ready to cook, you’ll have plenty of ready-to-heat meals.
Keep meals enjoyable
Find ways to make eating a calm and enjoyable experience. Eating with someone else can sometimes boost your mood and appetite. If you live alone, ask a friend or family member to join you in person or via video call for companionship.
You can also watch your favorite show, listen to an audiobook, or play music to set the mood for your meal.
If you can, incorporating certain activities can boost your mood and appetite. It doesn’t have to be exhausting. A gentle indoor or outdoor walk or stretching can help. Some people find that getting out in the fresh air gives them a boost of energy.