How to Address Nausea and Decreased Appetite During Cancer Treatment

For many patients, cancer treatment can result in nausea, vomiting, and a decreased appetite. This can make it difficult to eat well, stay hydrated, and maintain a healthy weight – all of which are key factors in helping patients feel stronger and tolerate treatments better.

Here are some ways to manage these side effects.

Plan ahead

Sometimes the best defense against nausea is a good offense. Be proactive and take your anti-nausea medications as prescribed by your care team. If you wait until you feel sick to take your nausea medication, you may lose too much time for getting in good nutrition and hydration.

Consider using ginger for its anti-nausea properties, in tea or lozenge form. Lemon aromatherapy may also be helpful. Try slow deep inhales of fresh cut lemon to soothe an uneasy stomach. Sitting up right for 60 minutes after eating is another strategy that aids digestion, and reduces risk for an upset stomach.

It’s also important to be mindful of where you’re eating. Are you eating in the same place your food is prepared? Cooking odors or other smells may further curb your appetite and spark nausea. Consider eating both outside of the kitchen and wherever you sleep. Aim for fresh air or a new scene to help lighten the mood.

Some people can become nauseated just thinking about treatment. This is called anticipatory nausea, and it can be limited with relaxation techniques, including Reiki and acupuncture.

Meal preparation and eating habits

Making simple changes to how your food is prepared and consumed, can also help combat nausea and loss of appetite.

Try eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day, instead of three large meals. You may find it beneficial to separate large meals into single-serving containers. These can then be frozen and consumed on your schedule.

Try picking odorless, bland, and easy-to-digest foods. Oatmeal, chicken noodle soup, peanut butter toast, or crackers may be better tolerated than heavy meals, for example. Foods that are overly greasy, fried, spicy, or, sweet may also be poorly tolerated.

Oatmeal may be tolerated better than other heavy meals.
Oatmeal may be tolerated better than other heavy meals.

Every bite counts

Every bite of your meal counts. Actively look for ways to add proteins, and healthy fats to your foods. Even small amounts of healthful fats like olive oil and avocado can easily provide additional calories.

Nuts, which have both fats and protein, are a good high-calorie snack option. You can also slowly sip on homemade shakes that contain added nut butters or avocado, and protein powder or a liquid nutritional supplement.

Finally, don’t forget to stay hydrated. In addition to sipping clear liquids such as ginger tea or diluted juices, try adding more soup to your diet. Soups are easy choices for hydration and to sneak in proteins and helpful fats. Think tofu miso soup or chicken noodle soup.

These tips were adapted from a cooking demonstration at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute hosted by Emily Biever, RD, LDN, senior clinical dietician, and sponsored by the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living.

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