If you’re living with lung cancer, you may see many changes in your physical and emotional health, such as a shift in your appetite.

There are many reasons for this. It can be due to physical changes in your body from cancer or the effects of lung cancer treatments.

Getting enough nutrients through your diet can help you feel better. It can keep you stronger and help you better able to handle treatments.

Read on for more information on how lung cancer can affect your appetite and what you can do about it.

Lung cancer can affect your appetite in many ways. Here are some of the most common reasons why your appetite may be lower when you have lung cancer:

  • Digestive changes. Chemotherapy can cause many digestive side effects. These include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation. All of these can decrease your interest in eating.
  • Radiation therapy damage. Radiation therapy to the lungs may damage the esophagus since it’s in the same area. The esophagus is the tube that connects your throat to your stomach. Damage to the esophagus may make it hard for you to swallow.
  • Mouth sores. Some people get mouth sores as a side effect of chemotherapy. When your mouth hurts, it’s hard to eat and some foods can be irritating.
  • Medications that change appetite. Low appetite can be a side effect of some targeted therapies for non-small cell lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
  • Fatigue. A review of studies reported between 57 and 100 percent of people with lung cancer will experience fatigue. Fatigue often happens along with pain, difficulty sleeping, and depression. Feeling fatigued makes it hard to eat and prepare food.
  • Shortness of breath. When you feel short of breath, it takes extra energy to breathe and can be hard to coordinate breathing and eating at the same time. Shortness of breath also makes it more challenging to get groceries and prepare food.
  • Changes to hunger signals. Normal hunger and fullness cues in the body are driven by a variety of chemical messengers. Cancer cells release proteins that interfere with these signals, lowering your appetite.

Your body needs a variety of nutrients from food to function at its best. When you have lung cancer, your nutrient needs increase. It might feel unfair that eating can be so challenging at a time when nutrition is so important.

According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), not getting enough nutrients can result in:

  • lower energy levels
  • loss of muscle and feeling weaker
  • less tolerance for treatments
  • lower immune function

Without enough of the right nutrients, you may experience the side effects of deficiencies, including iron deficiency anemia.

There are many strategies you can try to increase your nutrient intake when your appetite is low. The things that may work for you will depend on what your eating challenges are. It can take some trial and error before you find the things that work for you.

Ask for help from loved ones and your healthcare team — they’re there to support you. Be honest about what you need help with and how they can lend a hand.

Try soft foods

If mouth sores or changes to your ability to swallow are making it hard to eat, try softer foods, recommends the ACS. Soft foods include:

  • yogurt
  • eggs
  • pasta
  • rice
  • beans
  • canned fruit
  • oatmeal
  • soups
  • avocados

Soft foods can also feel easier on your digestive system. Swallowing challenges from radiation therapy often get better once treatments end.

Try bland foods

Bland foods may be better tolerated if you feel nauseous or have mouth sores. Bland foods are those that don’t have strong flavors or spices.

These foods are easier to digest and won’t cause more irritation to your mouth.

Some examples are:

  • white bread
  • plain pasta
  • rice
  • soups
  • canned fruit
  • cooked vegetables
  • meat, chicken, and fish without sauces
  • eggs
  • tofu
  • milk
  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • pudding

Eating foods cold or at room temperature may also help if strong tastes or smells are bothering you.

Try nutritional supplement drinks

Sometimes it’s easier to drink instead of eating solid foods. Nutritional supplement drinks can give you extra nutrients when your appetite is low.

You can use them as meal replacements or sip at them throughout the day. Smoothies or shakes that you make at home are another way to get more nutrients in a liquid form.

Eat small, frequent meals

Do your best to eat something small every few hours throughout the day. Rather than trying for three large meals, aim for six to eight small meals or snacks.

This way of eating can be easier to tolerate if you’re having any digestive trouble. It can also feel more manageable with a low appetite.

Many people find they get full quickly, and a big meal is just too much. It may be helpful to set alarms to remind you to eat more often.

Choose drinks wisely

Focus on eating solid foods at meals with only small sips of liquids so they don’t fill you up too much. Drink between meals to keep yourself hydrated.

Do your best to drink beverages with extra calories. Juice, milk, or sports drinks will give you more calories than water.

Boost your calories

If it’s hard to eat more, consider adding more nutrients to what you are able to eat.

The ACS suggests trying these strategies to add more calories to your food:

  • Add extra oils and butter while cooking and to your meals.
  • Avoid anything labeled low fat or low calorie.
  • Use high fat dairy products such as full fat yogurt, whole milk, cream, and cheese.
  • Consider adding powdered milk to cream soups, mashed potatoes, yogurt, pudding, or casseroles.
  • Add nuts, seeds, or nut butter to meals and snacks.
  • Add sauces or spreads such as butter, gravy, mayo, or dressings whenever you can.

Get bloodwork done

Many people with lung cancer develop anemia, especially after chemotherapy treatment. Anemia occurs when your red blood cell levels drop too low.

In one 2018 study, about 34 percent of the people with lung cancer had anemia before undergoing any treatment. This number jumped to 66 percent for those who had received chemotherapy.

Anemia can leave you feeling even more low energy and less motivated to eat. Ask your doctor about your blood levels and whether an iron supplement might be helpful.

Ask for a medication review

Talk with your doctor or pharmacist to find out more about your medications. Ask about side effects and whether there are alternatives. Medications for lung cancer may cause low appetite or other symptoms that affect your food intake.

It’s possible that your medication dose could be adjusted or taken at a different time of day to help with low appetite.

If you’re having trouble with pain and nausea, there may be additional medications that can help you to manage those symptoms.

Keep simple snacks around

Make sure there are lots of ready-to-eat options available to you. Fatigue and feeling short of breath can make it harder to prepare food. When it’s time to eat, it’s good to have lots of quick choices around.

Here are some ideas from the ACS:

  • yogurt
  • pre-sliced cheese
  • ready-made smoothies
  • muffins
  • crackers
  • trail mix
  • granola bars
  • pretzels
  • cookies
  • prewashed and cut fruit and vegetables

Get help with groceries or meals

If you’re feeling fatigued and short of breath, getting out to the grocery store can be a daunting task. Ask a friend or family member for help with shopping. You could also consider using a grocery delivery system.

If you’re feeling low energy, food prep might also be difficult. Family or friends may be happy to bring you meals. Be specific about the types of foods that you’d like best or that you need to feel nourished. There are also meal delivery programs where you can order premade meals.

Batch-cook meals

If you feel up to doing some cooking, make meals that create leftovers, such as:

  • casseroles
  • pasta dishes
  • stews
  • soups

You can freeze individual servings. That way, when the time comes that you need a meal but aren’t up to cooking, you’ll have lots of meals ready to reheat.

Keep meals pleasant

Find ways to make eating a calm and pleasant experience. Eating with someone else can sometimes boost your mood and appetite. If you live alone, ask a friend or family member to join you in person or by video call so you have some company.

You could also watch a favorite show, listen to an audiobook, or have music playing to set a nice mood for your meal.

Get moving

If you’re able, fitting in some activity may increase your mood and appetite. It doesn’t have to be anything strenuous. A gentle walk inside or outside or some stretching can help. Some people find that getting outside in the fresh air gives them a boost in energy.

Appetite loss is a common part of living with lung cancer. Digestive changes, pain, and fatigue can all contribute to this.

There are many benefits to good nutrition when you have cancer, but eating well can be tough.

To help with low appetite, try exploring different food textures and flavors, eating smaller but more frequent meals, and focusing on higher calorie foods. Ask about your medications to make sure they’re right for you, especially if you notice big changes to your appetite.

Managing lung cancer can be incredibly difficult. Be sure to talk with your healthcare team and your loved ones. There may be ways that they can support you in eating and feeling nourished.