Weight problems

Sunday 30 June, 2013

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On this page: Weight loss ι Weight gain ι Malnutrition ι Loss of appetite ι Reviewers

This section includes suggestions that may help you cope with eating problems. Don’t be afraid to give them a try. Some tips may work for you but others may not. Share your needs and concerns with your family and friends, particularly those who prepare meals for you. Let them know that you appreciate their support. If your eating problems persist, and you need more help, see your dietitian, doctor or nurse.

You may lose or gain weight for various reasons, including the effects of the cancer and cancer treatment.

Weight loss

If you're underweight or losing weight you may need to include more protein and more energy in your diet. Good sources of protein and energy (calories or kilojoules) include: meat, fish, poultry, milk, and dairy products, eggs, legumes (e.g. baked beans, chick peas, lentils) and nuts. For extra protein, aim to include at least one higher protein food at each meal.

High protein foods and drinks should also be included as between–meal snacks. Nutritional supplements such as nourishing drinks may also be useful to help you gain weight.

You may also be encouraged to eat foods that are typically not considered as healthy foods as they can be high in fat and sugar. Including foods with extra protein, fat and sugar in your diet, for most people, will be for a relatively short period of time. If you have any concerns, discuss them with your doctor or dietitian.

Weight gain

Weight gain can happen for various reasons. People with certain types of cancer, especially those with breast cancer, are more likely to gain weight during and after treatment.

Certain types of chemotherapy, hormone therapy and some medicines such as steroids can cause weight gain. These treatments can also cause your body to retain water, which can make you feel puffy and gain weight, or some treatments can increase your appetite so you feel hungry and eat more. Being tired because of the treatment may lead to decrease in activity. Being less active can also cause weight gain.

Generally, during cancer treatment is not a good time to deliberately lose weight. Try to maintain your weight throughout treatment. If you gain weight during treatment and are concerned, speak first to your doctor about it to work out how to best manage it. In situations where you've lost weight without trying, regaining at least some of this weight can help you better tolerate treatment.


Malnutrition occurs when there's an imbalance of energy, protein or other nutrients. Malnutrition is common in people with cancer and can impact your health and how your body responds to cancer treatment and recovery. It's possible to be malnourished even if you're overweight.

Many factors can increase your risk of malnutrition, including:

  • certain cancer types, such as head and neck, lung and gastrointestinal cancers
  • increased nutritional needs from cancer and treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery
  • side effects from cancer treatments
  • medications
  • hospitalisation
  • stress, anxiety and fatigue.

Many of the eating problems discussed can contribute to, or be signs or symptoms of, malnutrition and can lead to a reduced response to cancer treatments, increased side effects and possibly reduced survival.

Malnutrition can also lessen your strength, function and quality of life. Eating well can assist your health and progress before, during and after cancer treatments.

Regardless of where you have your treatment, at diagnosis and at frequent points throughout your treatment journey, you should be asked by hospital staff about your risk of malnutrition. You should be asked:

  • Have you lost weight recently without trying? This refers to the past six months and the amount you've lost will be measured.
  • Have you been eating poorly because of decreased appetite? Are you eating less than three quarters of your usual meals for any unintentional reason?

If you answer yes to one or both of these questions, you may be at risk of malnutrition. If this is the case, it's important to be referred to a dietitian for individualised advice.

Identifying your risk of malnutrition early is key to tackling it in the best way to improve your overall health. Malnutrition and weight loss can be prevented. It should not be considered an expected side effect from cancer or treatments. Speak to your doctor or dietitian about ways to lower your risk.

Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite is a common problem that may be caused by many things including the effects of cancer on the body, the effects of treatment or other side-effects such as feeling sick or the smell of food, or feeling down or upset. You may just not feel like eating. There are many ways to make mealtimes more appealing if you've lost your appetite.

  • Try to keep to a regular eating pattern. You may not feel hungry but your body still needs nourishment in order to maintain your weight.
  • A very full plate of food may put you off eating – try having your food on a smaller plate to keep the portions small.
  • Eat what you feel like, when you feel like it. For example, have cereal at dinner time and a main meal at lunch.
  • Try to keep a variety of foods in your diet as this may help improve your intake.
  • Choose full–fat foods whenever possible. These may be labelled as ‘thick and creamy’ rather than ‘light’ or ‘diet’ or ‘low fat’.
  • Add high energy and protein foods to your fruit and vegetables. For example fruit with yoghurt, cut up vegetables with dip and roasting vegetables with olive oil.
  • Have a range of ready prepared foods and snacks on hand for times when you don’t feel like preparing food. Cook larger quantities in advance and store in the freezer, or ask family and friends to prepare meals if you don’t feel like cooking. Remember to practice good food hygiene.
  • Sip fluids throughout the day, choosing ones that add kilojoules and other nutrients such as milk, milkshakes or commercial supplements.
  • Gentle physical activity can stimulate appetite. For example, take a short walk around the block or even around your backyard.
  • Make meals as enjoyable and social as possible – you may want to play music, turn off the TV, light candles or invite friends to join you.
Reviewed by: Jenelle Loeliger, Head - Nutrition Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Aigner, Cancer Information Consultant, Cancer Council Helpline ACT; Ian Anderson, Consumer; Dr Anna Boltong ( Clinical Dietitian), Unit Head, Cancer Information and Support Service, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Bridget Kehoe, Public Health Coordinator (Nutrition and Physical Activity), Cancer Council QLD; Steve Pratt, Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager, Cancer Council WA; and Roswitha Stegmann, Helpline Nurse, Cancer Council WA.
Updated: 30 Jun, 2013