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Loss of appetite and weight loss

Loss of appetite and weight are common when you’re living with a terminal illness. This may be caused by your illness, its treatment, medication or your psychological wellbeing. If you’re worried about your appetite or the amount you’re eating, ask your nurse or doctor for advice.

Losing your appetite

When you’re unwell, you might find that you lose interest in food and drink. You could also find it more difficult to swallow. Changes in the taste buds can make food taste different and changes in your stomach can make you feel full sooner. Nausea and swallowing problems, like retching or gagging, or feeling anxious or depressed, can also affect your appetite and thirst.  

A nurse or doctor may try to identify a cause for your loss of appetite to help you manage it appropriately. This may include giving you medication, providing psychological support or offering dietary advice.

Weight loss

Loss of appetite can lead to weight loss. However, some people with a terminal illness experience a lot of weight loss that isn’t easily reversed by better nutrition. This can be because of the effects of the disease on the body.

If your weight loss is caused by something specific, like pain, mouth problems or stomach problems, your nurse or doctor may be able to offer treatments to relieve these. This may increase your appetite and help you to gain some weight.

If they can’t work out why you’re losing weight and treat the cause, you may be given something to try to stop more weight loss. This might include:

  • medication
  • nutritional supplements
  • gentle exercise programmes to reduce muscle loss

Things you can try if you have a poor appetite

Having the right balance of foods can help you get the nutrients and energy you need for your body to function properly. Here are some things you and your carer can try to help:

  • Choose foods you really enjoy and make them look as attractive as possible.

  • Try small portions – eat only what you can manage and more often.

  • Using a small plate can be easier and less overwhelming.

  • Eat when you feel like eating – don’t feel you need to stick to usual meal times.

  • Try softer foods that don’t need much chewing, especially if your mouth is sore or you’re finding it hard to swallow.  

  • Try soup, milky puddings, porridge, yoghurt, ice cream, nutritious drinks and snacks.

  • If the smell of hot food makes you feel sick, try eating cold foods instead – foods like sandwiches, salads and cheese or quiche can be just as nutritious.

  • Ask your doctor if it’s ok for you to have a small glass of wine or sherry half an hour before your meal – this can help your appetite.

  • Exercise gently before eating – walking outdoors, for example, may help stimulate your appetite.

  • Sucking on boiled sweets or drinking fizzy drinks, like mineral water or lemonade, can soothe a dry mouth and may help if you’re feeling sick.

If you have a coated tongue, some people recommend eating unsweetened pineapple chunks or juice. This may help as long as your mouth is not feeling sore.

This page is for general information only. It's not intended to replace any advice from health or social care professionals. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. Read more about how our information is created and how it's used.

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