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For cancer patients: Advice on eating when you don’t feel hungry

illustration of fork, knife and spoonNutrition is an important part of staying healthy, especially during cancer treatment. But eating when you have no appetite or feel full all the time can present a challenge.

Here are eight tricks to try, from Upstate Cancer Center registered dietitian nutritionist Maria Erdman:

Maria Erdman

Maria Erdman

  1. Small, frequent meals may be easier to stomach than three full sit-down meals.

  2. Plan to eat on a schedule, rather than just when you feel hungry. Set an alarm to go off every couple of hours and have a few bites of something.

  3. Choose foods high in calories and protein. (See list below.)

  4. Drink liquids 30 minutes before or after meals, and limit yourself to sips as needed while you are eating.

  5. Prevent becoming full too quickly by chewing slowly and thoroughly.

  6. Focus on foods that have enticing smells and look good. If certain food smells turn you off, try eating the food cold or at room temperature.

  7. Avoid foods that make you gassy or bloated; they can leave you feeling full.

  8. Exercise to help stimulate your appetite.

What sounds good?

Here are Erdman‘s high protein/high calorie suggestions:


Yogurt (Greek has more protein; plain with fresh fruit has less sugar; add granola or muesli with nuts, if tolerated.)

Milkshakes (made with Ensure or Carnation Instant Breakfast, with or without creamy peanut butter, cocoa powder and banana – use frozen chunks for thicker texture)

Milk or chocolate milk (add 2 tablespoons powdered milk to 1 cup milk to make it “fortified.”)

Cottage cheese with fruit and/or seeds (chia, sunflower or ground flaxseed), if tolerated

Hot cereal cooked in fortified milk

Macaroni and cheese cooked with fortified milk (stir in soft-cooked vegetables for nutrition boost)

Cheese or vegetable pizza

Baked turkey, chicken or fish

Mashed potatoes with fortified milk

Tuna/chicken/egg salad sandwich

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or peanut butter on crackers, or spread on toast with fruit

Cheese with crackers, melted on vegetables or grilled in a sandwich

Beans and lentils (dry or from can, rinsed to remove excess sodium)

Hummus with vegetables to dip (stir in olive oil for added calories)

Baked beans, refried beans or multi-bean salad with olive-oil-based dressing

Nuts – almonds, walnuts, pistachios, peanuts or pecans

Guacamole (avocado mashed with salsa, lime juice and plain Greek yogurt, as a dip or on top of scrambled eggs or beans)

Coconut milk (from a can, add 1 to 2 tablespoons to smoothies and cereals for added nondairy calories)

Tofu (add to smoothies, cook into stir-fry, or use to make chocolate pudding)

Cancer Care magazine winter 2019 coverThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.