On this page: What is malnutrition? | Why are cancer patients at risk of malnutrition? | How do you know if you are
malnourished? | Why is malnutrition a problem in
cancer patients? | Further information
What is malnutrition?
Malnutrition in people with cancer occurs when you
are eating less energy and protein than the amount
your body needs. This can lead to unplanned weight
loss and a reduction in body
fat and muscle.
Compared to the rest of the population, people
with cancer are at a higher risk of malnutrition. It is
important to prevent malnutrition or identify it early,
as malnutrition can affect how your body responds
to your cancer treatment and your recovery.
Why are cancer patients at risk of
Many factors can increase the risk of malnutrition
when you have cancer, including:
- The cancer itself and the part of the body involved.
If the cancer involves the head
and neck or gastrointestinal areas
(including stomach and bowel) it may be
more difficult to swallow and digest food
- Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy,
radiotherapy and surgery can increase your
energy and protein needs
- Side effects from cancer treatment may
make it more difficult to eat
- Being unwell in hospital
- Stress and anxiety
- Fatigue and loss of energy.
How do you know if you are
Sometimes it is difficult to know if you are
malnourished and changes in food intake and
activity can be mistaken for other factors. Some signs to look out for include:
- Eating less than usual, feeling full quickly or
not eating between meals
- Even a small drop in your weight (3 or 4 kg) without
trying can put you at risk of being malnourished.
It is possible to be malnourished even if you are
- Reduced physical performance, such as not being
able to walk as fast or far as usual.
The list below shows some factors that
contribute to malnutrition. These can also be signs
that you have or are at risk of malnutrition.
- Feeling full quickly
- Pain or dryness in your mouth or throat
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Taste changes
- Weight loss
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Nausea and vomitting
- Poor appetite
Why is malnutrition a problem in
Malnutrition can lead to a reduced response to
cancer treatments, increased side effects and
possibly reduced survival. It can increase your risk
of infection and the time you spend in hospital.
Malnutrition can also reduce your strength and
quality of life.
Even if you are overweight, losing weight during your
cancer treatment and recovery can increase your
risk of malnutrition.
Eating well is therefore very important for your
health before, during and after cancer treatments.
How can malnutrition be
prevented or managed?
Malnutrition and weight loss can usually be
prevented. It should not be considered an expected
side effect from cancer or treatments.
Your doctor or nurse will regularly ask you questions
about your weight and appetite to check your risk of
malnutrition. A dietitian can determine whether you
have malnutrition. They can work with you to ensure
you are following an appropriate and balanced diet,
and aim to avoid or minimise weight loss.
Your dietitian may suggest some dietary
changes and provide you with information on:
- A diet high in energy (kilojoules/calories)
- Nourishing drinks including milk drinks
- Smaller and more frequent meals
- Different foods that may be easier to
chew or swallow
- Nutritional supplement drinks.
There are no special diets or foods to include or
avoid when you have cancer. It is important to
ensure you include foods from all food groups. Your
dietitian may suggest less focus on including lots of
fruits and vegetables and recommend eating more
snack foods, desserts, full cream dairy foods and
eggs. These foods can help you meet your energy
and protein needs.
This may be quite different to your normal eating
patterns. In some situations, it is not possible to
meet your nutritional needs through eating alone.
Your dietitian and doctor may recommend the use of
a feeding tube or intravenous nutrition to help.
It is important to let your doctor, dietitian or
pharmacist know if you are taking any nutrition,
vitamin or herbal supplements as they can
sometimes interact with cancer treatments
An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can
provide you with further information and advice on
preventing or managing malnutrition. A referral can
be made through your doctor or health service. The
Dietitians Association of Australia (ph: 1800 812 942) can direct you to
an APD in your local area.