How cancer treatment affects your appetite

How cancer treatment affects your appetite

“Chemotherapy is used in cancer treatment to disrupt the growth of cancer cells, but unfortunately, it affects all of the cells in a body, not just the sick ones,” says Christi Hansen, MS, RDN, LD, a licensed and registered dietitian at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “This is particularly noticeable in cells that regularly reproduce, like hair and nails that are constantly growing, and taste buds.”

Taste buds have an average lifespan of 10 days. Chemotherapy disrupts their growth pattern, which is why your sense of taste can often fluctuate – even daily – during chemotherapy treatment cycles.

These disruptions can result in:

  • A dulled ability to taste

  • A chemical aftertaste that never goes away

  • Heightened sensitivities to spicy, sweet and bitter flavors

  • Increased sensitivity to cooking smells or inability to smell pleasant aromas  

Other chemotherapy side effects, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation, can affect the digestive process, significantly reducing your appetite and sense of enjoyment from eating.

Lack of appetite and altered taste buds can also stem from depression and anxiety that may accompany a cancer diagnosis.

“This aspect is often overlooked or not discussed with patients as readily as the medication-related side effects, but a person's emotional state is absolutely as powerful as any drug or treatment in affecting their ability to eat,” Hansen explains.

Are changes in appetite permanent?

“Typically, the changes are temporary, though some lasting effects of liking new foods or disliking old favorites may linger,” says Hansen.

How to improve your appetite during cancer treatment

Hansen recommends the following tips for improving the way food tastes during chemo or radiation therapy:

Season your foods. “If your taste buds are dulled, try seasoning food with strong flavors such as garlic, fresh herbs, black pepper, mustard or smoked paprika,” she says. “If you are not experiencing mouth sores or a sore throat, add a squeeze of lemon or lime, vinaigrette, or citrus-based sauce or marinade to heighten the taste of food.”

Eat foods at room temperature. “Often patients find eating foods at room temperature is easier, especially if they are experiencing extreme sensitivities to hot or cold foods,” she says. “However, I've had patients tell me that they can only tolerate extremely hot or cold foods during treatments, so this advice varies with each individual.”

Avoid the kitchen when someone is cooking. If you are very sensitive to food smells, try to avoid the kitchen while someone is cooking. If you want to prepare a meal, try foods that are cold or room-temperature, like smoothies, salads, raw vegetables and hummus, nuts and nut butters, fruits, sandwiches, chicken or tuna salad, and Greek yogurt.

Avoid using metal utensils and cups if you're experiencing a metallic taste. “Invest in a few high-quality plastic forks and spoons instead of the thin takeout variety if the appearance of your flatware is important,” she suggests.

Use smaller plates. “Remember, we also eat with our eyes,” says Hansen. “Try eating off of small plates and bowls if the sight of a large meal is so overwhelming that it ruins your limited appetite.”

Don’t force yourself to eat favorite foods. “If a favorite food tastes strange, avoid the disappointment and save that meal for when you're feeling good, even if that means after treatment is completed for good,” she recommends.

Drink tea. Sipping on ginger tea can help reduce nausea.

Brush your teeth regularly. “Brush your teeth after meals and before bed, and use mouthwash before eating to reduce the chemical aftertaste from chemo drugs,” says Hansen. “The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a homemade solution of 1 quart of water, 3/4 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Avoid alcohol-based mouthwash if you have sores or a burning sensation in your mouth.”

Eat soft foods. Eating soft foods can also be less daunting, especially when energy is low or you're just not up for a lot of chewing, she says. Soups, stews, and gravies can help relieve some of the unpleasantness of dry mouth.

Prevent constipation. Avoid constipation by consuming plenty of fiber from vegetables, fruits, whole grains or a fiber supplement. Good digestion will help flush out residual chemotherapy drugs and improve your appetite, says Hansen.

Stay hydrated. Plain water or water with lemon will keep you hydrated, but if you need electrolytes, sports drinks or oral rehydration solutions can help.

The best foods to eat during cancer treatment

“Maintaining strength and immunity is important at all times, but especially during chemotherapy,” says Hansen. “Cancer alone is very draining on a body's resources and the chemo adds another assault. Additionally, patients are often also recovering from surgery. The right foods can provide nutrients and energy, while fried, sugary, and highly processed items actually keep the body from healing. It can be a tough line to walk if you are craving junky stuff, but it's important to make good choices whenever possible. Eating proteins, fruits and vegetables should be the goal.”

Shift your perspective on food

There is a lot of history, culture and emotion tied to eating. When you are going through cancer treatment, focusing on eating for nourishment instead of pleasure can feel like one more chore during the treatment process, explains Hansen.

“Shifting your perspective on food and eating for a while can be very helpful,” she says. “Remind yourself that this period is likely temporary and that eating well is necessary to maximize the treatments.”

Check out more nutrition tips from Cancer Wellness experts.

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