Eating problems and weight loss

Older man touching his stomach

What kind of eating difficulties might I have? 

  • Finding it hard to swallow.
  • Feeling full after eating only small amounts.
  • Losing your appetite.

What causes eating difficulties?

Eating difficulties can happen for different reasons. For example:

  • Taste changes..
  • Sore mouth.
  • Nausea.
  • Surgery. For example, to your stomach, mouth or throat.
     

It’s important to try and manage eating problems. Eating well can help you to: 

  • Feel better.
  • Keep up your energy.
  • Cope better with treatment.
  • Recover faster.
     

How are eating problems treated?

If you have any difficulty eating or drinking, talk to your medical team as soon as possible. They can give you advice on how to solve the problem and refer you to a dietitian or speech and language therapist, if necessary. 

  • If you feel sick. Your doctor can give you medication to help. We have more information on coping with nausea and vomiting
  • If you have no appetite. Steroids can stimulate your appetite. We also have tips below on eating when your appetite is poor.
  • If you’re not eating enough or you’re losing weight. The hospital dietitian can advise you on ways to get more nutrition. You might be given supplements or a special diet - for example, eating lots of high-energy foods. 

    If you have lost a lot of weight, for example after stomach or oesophageal cancer surgery, you may need tube-feeding for a time to get your weight up.

Tube feeding: If you can’t eat normally you may have a tube passed through the wall of your abdomen (tummy) into your stomach to give liquid food directly into your stomach. This is called a PEG tube. PEG tubes are usually temporary but can be left in permanently, if needed.

Tips and hints – loss of appetite

  • Eat bland, easy-to-digest foods and drinks, like crackers, toast or plain biscuits.
  • Eat about 5 or 6 small meals or snacks each day.
  • Do not fill your stomach with fluids before eating.
  • Take fluids slowly, with small sips. 
  • Try ginger and fizzy drinks, as some people find them helpful.
  • Do not eat or prepare food if you feel sick.
  • Avoid food and drinks with a strong smell, like garlic, onions, fried foods, etc.
  • Eat warm or cool foods if you cannot tolerate the smell of hot food.
  • Find out when is best for you to eat and drink before treatment. Some people need a light snack, while others need an empty stomach.
  • If you’re feeling nauseous tell your medical team so that they can give you anti-sickness medicine. If this doesn’t work, let them know. We have more advice on coping with nausea.

Swallowing difficulties

After treatment like radiotherapy to the head and neck you might find it hard to swallow. It may feel like you have a lump in your throat all the time. Food or drink may seem to go down the wrong way, making you cough as you try to swallow.

Tips and hints – swallowing difficulties

Try putting small amounts of food into your mouth and chewing them properly before you try to swallow.  
Eat foods combined with liquid, such as thick soups or stews. 
If fluids go down the wrong way, you can get a powder which makes fluids thicker and easier to swallow
Avoid hard-to-swallow foods like tough meat, crusty bread and raw vegetables.

You can also have treatment for swallowing difficulties such as having a small operation to put in a stent to hold your food pipe open. Read more about treatment for swallowing problems

Weight loss

You may lose weight if you’re having eating difficulties. Some weight loss can be normal after certain cancer treatments. But it’s always best to get in touch with your medical team if you’re losing weight. You might need more advice from a dietitian or even tube feeding for a time. 

Tips and hints – weight loss

  • Try eating little and often rather than trying to eat normal sized meals. Try to eat six small meals or snacks a day. Pick things that are high in calories and protein like full-fat yogurts, cheese portions, nuts and seeds. 
  • Eating softer foods should help if swallowing is painful after surgery or radiotherapy. 
  • Keep a food diary if you are having problems. Write down what you eat and when. Also write down any symptoms you get and when they happen. You may be able to notice which foods cause which symptoms. 
  • If you need to increase calories, add butter or cream to your food whenever you can. 
  • Find a comfortable position for eating. Standing up, sitting up or slightly reclining can help food go down better.
  • Don’t drink before eating if you have weight loss or get full easily. Drinks will fill you up so it’s harder to eat enough to give you the calories you need.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about build-up drinks and nutritional supplements for when you find it hard to eat food.

Read our booklet Diet and Cancer for more advice on coping with eating problems:

Diet and Cancer booklet
Diet and Cancer - A guide for patients and families booklet
This booklet has been written to help you learn more about diet and cancer. It is aimed at people with cancer at any stage. It would also be useful to people who are caring for someone with cancer.

Sometimes people with advanced cancer have severe weight loss called cachexia. We have more information on cachexia.

For more information

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