Loss of appetite due to chemotherapy

Loss of appetite due to chemotherapy

Loss of appetite for food (anorexia) is one of the most common problems caused by cancer treatment. Your child's healthcare team will monitor your child's weight carefully during treatment.

Key points to remember

This page is part of a whole section about childhood cancer.

  • loss of appetite for food (anorexia) is one of the most common problems caused by cancer treatment
  • as well as losing their appetite, your child may experience a side effect called early filling, where they feel full after only a few bites of food
  • weight loss is a common side effect and your child's healthcare team will monitor weight carefully during treatment

Why do some children having chemotherapy lose their appetite?

Loss of appetite for food, known as anorexia, is one of the most common problems caused by cancer treatment. It is understandable if your child doesn't feel hungry while they are suffering uncomfortable side effects such as:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • an altered sense of smell or taste
  • mouth sores

Your child may also experience a side effect called early filling. This is when they feel full after only a few bites of food. It can lead to weight loss. Weight loss is a common side effect and your child's healthcare team will monitor weight carefully throughout treatment.

What can I do to encourage an appetite?

If you are worried about your child not getting enough to eat, here are some suggestions for encouraging an appetite:

  • your child may be reluctant to eat if they have a sore mouth - see suggestions that may help in Sore mouth due to chemotherapy
  • allow your child access to food at all times - 'grazing' is OK
  • try not to worry as you can use the time between treatments to make up for lost eating

It may also be that your child has indigestion. If so, speak to your doctor who can give medicine to help. Chewing food well and resting after eating can help minimise indigestion too. If your child is producing a lot of saliva, encourage them to spit it out rather than swallowing it.

How can I make sure my child has enough calories?

  • offer 5 or 6 mini meals a day, rather than 3 normal sized meals a day
  • make healthy high-energy snacks for your child to eat between meals - see some ideas below
  • give nourishing drinks for your child to sip slowly throughout the day - see some ideas below
  • keep serve sizes smaller than usual - this can be more appetising
  • add butter, cream or grated cheese to foods if your child can manage them, to increase the number of calories in the meal

High energy snacks

  • crackers with cheese and butter, or peanut butter or cheese spread
  • pikelets or pancakes with jam or chocolate spread
  • popcorn with butter or icing sugar
  • quick-cooking noodles with butter or cream and grated cheese
  • ice-cream, even better in a cone
  • mini muffins
  • corn chips with melted cheese
  • dips (such as avocado with sour cream or cream cheese base) served with chips or vegetables
  • sweet dips (such as cream cheese and chocolate or chocolate spread) with biscuits or chunks of fresh fruit
  • banana cut into rounds and rolled in coconut or powdered chocolate flavouring such as Milo
  • waffles with maple syrup
  • toasted fruit bread with butter
  • cream-based soup like cream of pumpkin or cream of tomato
  • little tubs of custards or yoghurts – stir in a teaspoon of cream for extra calories
  • breakfast cereal with milk and cream
  • pizza slices or fingers

High energy drinks

  • milkshakes - full cream milk with added ice-cream, cream or yoghurt and flavouring
  • fruit smoothies - banana or strawberries blended with milk
  • yogurt smoothies - fruit juice, yogurt and fresh fruit mixed
  • supplements for adding to drinks - your child's dietitian will give you advice about these

How can I encourage my child to eat?

Even when your child is having cancer treatment, you can usually continue your family routines at mealtimes.

Even when your child is having cancer treatment, you can usually continue your family routines at mealtimes. Sharing this time together can shift the focus away from food and can help lessen and disguise feelings of anxiety. Sometimes though, parents and caregivers find that flexibility is the way to promote a relaxed atmosphere.

The following are some ideas which may make it easier for your child to eat and for you to feel positive:

  • tell your child they have done well, even if they eat only a small amount
  • present food in new and different ways - try things like fancy drinking straws, decorated cups and plates, food cut into interesting shapes
  • invite your child to help prepare food with you
  • try to keep the normal mealtime routine for your family and encourage sitting with the rest of the family to talk
  • introduce some fun meals like picnics, video nights and party settings with your child helping to choose the foods served
  • use the time when your child is feeling well to boost their food intake

What can I do if I am worried?

Phone the hospital and speak to your child's doctor or dietitian if you need more help.

All the pages in the childhood cancer section of this website have been written by health professionals who work in the field of paediatric oncology. They have been reviewed by the members of the National Child Cancer Network (NZ). Medical information is authorised by the clinical leader of the National Child Cancer Network.

This page last reviewed 23 May 2018.
Email us your feedback


On this page