Preventing weight loss and malnutrition
Nutrition is the food and drink you require to keep your body healthy and strong. Food is your body's fuel and what you consume gives you energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. These are all needed to make sure your body works well.
If you do not give your body enough food and drink, you may experience unplanned weight loss. When this happens, your body is at risk of becoming malnourished.
Why is it important for people with cancer?
Compared to the rest of the population, people with cancer are at a higher risk of malnutrition. In fact, did you know that 1 in 4 people with cancer are malnourished?
There are many factors that can increase the risk of malnutrition when you have cancer, including:
- Cancer treatments, which can cause your body to use more energy and protein
- Side effects from cancer treatments, which may make it more difficult to eat
- Feeling unwell
- Stress and worry
- Feeling tired.
It is important to remember that while malnutrition is common in people with cancer, it is not always a side effect of cancer. Malnutrition should be prevented at all stages of the cancer journey as it impacts how your body responds to your cancer treatment, chances of infection and recovery speeds.
Weight loss and malnutrition can happen to anyone
It is important to understand that malnutrition can happen to anyone. It does not matter what size or shape you are, or if you are overweight or underweight. You can still lose muscle, which can make you feel weak and not able to do your everyday tasks.
What are the signs of malnutrition?
Sometimes it is difficult to tell if you have malnutrition. Some good signs to look out for include:
- Losing weight without trying
- Eating less than usual
- Needing to tighten your belt
- Your clothes feeling loose.
What foods should you eat to manage malnutrition?
When your body is nourished properly, your muscle strength and immune system improves, which impacts how well your cancer treatment works and how quickly your wounds heal.
Eating foods with high amounts of protein is a good way to prevent and manage malnutrition. This is because protein helps your body build and repair muscle during treatment and recovery. Try eating the protein in your meals first and snack on protein foods in between.
High protein foods that you can incorporate into your diet include:
- Meat (beef, lamb, pork, goat, kangaroo, veal)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)
- Fish and seafood (fish, prawns, crab)
- Dairy (full cream milk, cheese, yoghurt, custard, ice cream, milkshakes, smoothies and soy-based products). Note: nut, oat and rice milks are generally lower in protein.
- Nuts and seeds (whole nuts/seeds, peanut butter)
- Beans (lentils, kidney beans, baked beans, chickpeas)
If your weight has reduced, you might need more energy to fuel your body. Try adding high energy foods to your meals and snacks, such as:
- Full cream dairy products including butter and cream
- Fats and oils including vegetable oil, margarine, mayonnaise, avocado and peanut butter.
What else can you do to prevent or manage malnutrition?
There are other steps you can take to help reduce the impact of weight loss and malnutrition, including:
- Eating small meals and snacks every few hours
- Eating more when you feel most hungry
- Taking note of how much you eat and drink, and of any change to your weight
- Staying active to help build and repair your muscles
- Telling your doctor or nurse if you are taking any nutrition, vitamin or herbal supplements. This is important because they can impact how your medications and treatments work.
How can a dietitian help you?
A dietitian is a specialist in food and nutrition. Every person has different nutrition needs and a dietitian can help you to prevent and manage malnutrition in your own way. If you think you might have malnutrition, you should see a dietitian.
There are no special diets or foods to include or avoid when you have cancer, but your dietician might recommend food that is quite different to your normal eating patterns. Sometimes, it is not possible to meet your nutritional needs through eating alone, and your dietitian and doctor may suggest using a feeding tube or intravenous nutrition to help.
Your doctor, nurse or local health service can help you find a dietitian in your hospital or community.
Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to speak to a cancer nurse. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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.
Expert content reviewers and acknowledgements:
This information has been adapted from a Cancer Council Victoria resource titled: Understanding Malnutrition and Cancer. The review of this edition was a collaboration between the Victorian Cancer Malnutrition Collaborative (VCMC) and Cancer Council Victoria and funded by Western and Central Melbourne Integrated Cancer Service. This information is based on recent research on malnutrition and cancer (at the time of publication) and has been developed with help from a range of health professionals and people affected by cancer. This fact sheet is intended as a general introduction and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.