Stomach cancer presents many nutritional challenges. Here are some tips to help you manage symptoms and boost nutrition during treatment and after surgery.

Stomach cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer in the world. In the United States, about 1.5% of people newly diagnosed with cancer have stomach cancer.

Stomach cancer is a slow-growing type of cancer that starts in the cells that line the stomach. In the early stages, there may not be any symptoms. As the cancer grows, many people start to have digestive symptoms. This can lower your appetite and make it hard to eat.

One common treatment for stomach cancer is the surgical removal of all or part of the stomach. This is called a gastrectomy. After surgery, you’ll need to eat differently to manage your symptoms and boost your nutrition.

If you or a loved one is living with stomach cancer, you’re already aware of some of the nutrition challenges with this type of cancer. Here are some tips to help.

Even before diagnosis, the symptoms of stomach cancer can make it hard to eat enough. Low appetite, bloating, heartburn, and early feelings of fullness are all common in people with stomach cancer.

After a gastrectomy, your digestive system will work differently. It can be hard to get enough protein and calories to meet your needs. It’s estimated that up to 80% of people with advanced stomach cancer are malnourished. This can make surgery recovery more difficult, and treatments may be harder to tolerate.

Some people develop a condition called dumping syndrome after stomach surgery. There are ways to change your diet to help manage this.

As part of the digestive tract, the stomach typically has a few jobs. It’s a place to hold food and break it down before it continues to the small intestine. Your stomach is made of strong muscles that break food into a paste. Stomach acid also helps this process.

After a gastrectomy, you’ll need to make some changes to how you eat to help your digestive system work without a stomach.

Here are some tips for eating after a gastrectomy:

  • Eat often: Try to eat something every few hours. You might want to set a timer to remind yourself to eat if you’re not getting normal hunger signals.
  • Eat small amounts: Without a stomach, you’ll only be able to eat small amounts of food. You’ll likely feel best eating small meals and snacks more often.
  • Eat slowly: Take your time to eat. This helps to pace your digestive system.
  • Chew well: Without a stomach, you’ll need to rely more on your teeth to break down your food. Chewing well will help your body access more nutrients from your food.
  • Try softer foods: Softer foods can be easier to digest. Try things like eggs, pasta, yogurt, soups, and nut butters.
  • Modify textures as needed: Try cooked instead of raw vegetables, and make sure meats are well-cooked and easy to chew.
  • Avoid fluids with meals: Limit the amount of fluid you drink at a meal. This can fill you up too much and increase your risk of dumping syndrome after the meal.
  • Sip on fluids: To stay hydrated, take small sips of fluid throughout your day between meals and snacks.
  • Consider supplements: It may be helpful to use nutritional supplement drinks to boost your nutrient intake. Ask your doctor about whether you might need vitamin and mineral supplements.

How to eat more protein

If you’re having trouble eating enough, it can be hard to get enough protein. Protein is important to keep your immune system healthy, support healing, and prevent muscle loss.

Protein sources include:

  • beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish, and seafood
  • eggs
  • dairy products
  • beans and lentils
  • soy products

Try the following tips to boost your protein intake:

  • Keep ready-to-eat protein foods around, such as peanut butter, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, Greek yogurt, and hummus.
  • Swirl peanut butter into oatmeal, or spread it on crackers or toast.
  • Add skim milk powder to yogurt, milk, cream-based soups, and mashed potatoes.
  • Make a smoothie with added protein powder or buy premade high protein supplement drinks.

How to eat more calories

Many people find it hard to eat enough and maintain their weight. It’s estimated that 31–87% of people with stomach cancer have experienced some unintended weight loss at the time of diagnosis. Weight loss happens when you have higher energy needs due to cancer and have a hard time eating enough.

Getting enough calories can help increase your energy, support recovery from surgery, and help you tolerate treatments better.

Here are some ideas to add extra calories to your meals and snacks:

  • Add butter or oil to foods like pasta, potatoes, rice, or vegetables.
  • Add shredded cheese to scrambled eggs or on top of potatoes or pasta.
  • Choose full-fat milk and yogurt instead of low fat or fat-free types.
  • Drink high calorie nutritional supplement beverages between meals.

Some foods are harder to digest or may irritate your digestive system.

Foods to be cautious with include:

  • caffeine sources such as coffee, soda, tea, and energy drinks
  • alcohol
  • spicy foods
  • foods with tough textures, such as raw vegetables, the skin of fruit, tough meats, sausages, bacon, and nuts

After a gastrectomy, you may develop dumping syndrome. This happens when too much fluid gets pulled into the intestines during digestion. This makes food move too fast through your digestive system. Dumping syndrome causes symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, feeling faint, and sweating.

Foods more likely to cause dumping syndrome include:

  • regular soda
  • juice or sweetened tea
  • candies
  • high-sugar baked goods

You can also help prevent dumping syndrome by:

  • including a source of protein with all meals and snacks
  • eating more sources of soluble fiber, including oats, avocado, applesauce, and sweet potato
  • eating slowly and chewing your food well
  • avoiding fluids 30 minutes before and after your meals

Stomach cancer and treatments for stomach cancer can reduce your appetite. It’s hard to get enough to eat when you don’t feel hungry at all.

Here are some tips if you’re struggling to eat:

  • Get support: Ask for help with groceries and meals. Some people find meals easier if they are eating with others.
  • Keep simple options around: If your energy is low, make quick and nutritious options easy. Consider yogurt, cheese, cereal, muffins, crackers, pudding, and toast.
  • Eat often: Remember that you may not feel hunger signals anymore. Consider setting a timer to remind you to eat something every few hours.
  • Try liquids: It might feel easier to drink something instead of eating something solid. Try high calorie nutritional supplement drinks or smoothies.

Stomach cancer can cause many eating challenges. Symptoms of stomach cancer and the effects of treatment can make it hard to eat.

A gastrectomy changes how your digestive system works, but there are things you can do to help meet your body’s nutrient needs. These include eating on a regular schedule, including high calorie and high protein foods throughout your day, chewing slowly, and sticking with softer foods, if needed.

Consider seeking support from a registered dietitian if you’re having trouble with your diet.