Managing Weight Loss During Cancer Treatment

According to the National Cancer Institute, the goal of nutrition in cancer treatment is “to address current cancer- and treatment-related issues, minimize treatment-related side effects, and anticipate and manage acute, delayed, and late-occurring side effects of cancer and/or cancer treatment.”

This is important, as it must be recognized that nutrition will support you through cancer treatment. However, there is no diet or food that will cure your cancer. People with cancer often have higher nutritional needs than regular people, and the side effects of their cancer or treatment often mean that they are able to eat far less than healthy people. Side effects such as sore mouth, altered tastes, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are enough to make anyone lose weight. In a cruel case of catch-22, people with cancer who are malnourished have less energy than those who aren’t and have more difficulty tolerating treatment, so it is important to make sure you are getting as much nourishment as possible from every mouthful that you are able to take.

Some tips to help:

  • Avoid diet products. Make sure you are choosing full-fat foods. People with cancer who are losing weight need to maximize calories wherever possible. Malnutrition is a bigger risk factor for poor outcomes than an excess of fat or sugar is!
  • Fortify meals. Add in extra calories anywhere you see fit. Add cream to porridge, stir butter into soups, add nut butters to shakes, etc.
  • Eat little and often. Instead of aiming for three big meals per day, try having 6 smaller meals per day. You may find it helpful to set times to have each meal, as this makes a routine that you can get used to. Oftentimes during cancer treatment, people will suffer from a lack of appetite, meaning they must be diligent about eating regularly even if they are not hungry. One mouthful is better than nothing, so try different foods and see what appeals to you. Try our small meal recipes for ideas.
  • Prioritize foods high in protein and calories. It may go against everything you know, but for people with cancer, filling up on high-fiber fruits and vegetables may mean you don’t get the calories and protein your body needs. It is important that you still eat fruits and vegetables to get their micronutrients, but try eating them with a high-calorie topping to provide maximum nutrition. For example, try cheesy cauliflower mash instead of plain, which will give you more protein, calcium, and extra calories than plain cauliflower.
  • Try adding nutritious powders to your meals to provide more nutrition without adding bulk. Skim milk powder and commercial protein powders can all be added to give your meals that little bit extra. Be careful with protein powders as they are not FDA regulated – ask your dietitian for advice on the safest brands to consume. Try making up a jug of fortified milk to use in drinks, soups, and sauces. Simply add one cup of dried skimmed milk to one quart of whole milk and use this milk whenever you would use regular milk. Discard after 24 hours.
  • If you are really struggling to get anything down, ask your dietitian about taking an oral nutritional supplement. There are many brands to choose from these days such as Boost, Ensure, Kirkland brands, and more natural oral supplements such as Kate Farms, Orgain, or others. These drinks provide calories and micronutrients; however, for the best effect they should be taken in addition to meals, not as a substitute.

Lastly, don’t suffer in silence! Speak to your medical team and to your registered dietitian who will be able to give you a personalized plan to support you during treatment.


230+ High-Calorie Recipes

From shakes to casseroles to sweets, our collection of comforting, energy-dense recipes will help you make every bite count.

Avocado Toast With Egg

Kate Ueland, MS, RD, CSO is board-certified in oncology nutrition, primarily working with breast, ovarian, renal, and melanoma cancer patients throughout all stages of the cancer journey at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) in Seattle, WA. As Cook for Your Life’s nutrition advisor and editor, Kate ensures all culinary content adheres to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and follows science-based guidelines. 

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