Eating problems

If you are having or recovering from surgery or treatment, it is important to eat well. You may have some eating problems like a loss of appetite, nausea, taste and smell changes, and mouth or swallowing difficulties. Between your treatments, symptoms should improve, so take advantage of this and eat a variety of foods that you enjoy.

Tell your nurse, cancer doctor, or radiation therapist if you have not eaten well over the last few days.

Listed on the following pages are some tips you may find helpful.

Loss of appetite (not feeling hungry)

  • Eat small, frequent meals and snacks rather than three big meals.
  • Use a smaller plate and present meals attractively.
  • Eat more at times you feel hungry.
  • Serve your favourite foods often.
  • If possible, eat with family or friends rather than by yourself, or try eating while watching TV or reading a magazine or newspaper to take your mind off the food.
  • Choose fluids that provide calories rather than water, coffee, tea, or broth. Drink fluid after or in between meals, but not just before.
  • Relaxing before meals can reduce anxiety.
  • Try foods that are easy to eat; for example eggs, milk puddings, crackers, soups, spaghetti, macaroni cheese, chicken, fish, mashed vegetables, and fruit.
  • Garnishing food with chopped herbs, watercress, onion rings, orange slices, nuts, or tomato wedges can make food more appealing.
  • Chop food up into bite-sized portions to make eating less of an effort.
  • Prepare enough for several servings when cooking so you can eat when you are hungry.
  • Accept offers of meals from friends and family if you liv e on your own.
  • Make use of ready-made foods.
  • A short walk before a meal might make you feel hungry.

Nausea (feeling sick)

  • Not eating for an extended period of time can prolong nausea; therefore, try to eat small amounts regularly.
  • Talk to your cancer doctor about anti-sickness drugs, and take them as directed.
  • Keep up your fluid intake—sip drinks slowly or use a straw. Try ginger ale or lemonade, fruit juice, weak tea, yeast spreads made into broths, clear broths, fruit or vegetable juices, nectars, ice blocks, and ice chips.
  • Eat your main meal at the time of day when you feel the best.
  • Choose foods that do not have a strong smell.
  • Try a short walk in the fresh air before eating or try some slow, deep breathing.
  • Avoid fried, fatty foods, because they may make you feel worse.
  • Dry foods such as toast or crackers might help (with drinks between meals).
  • Rest after eating.
  • Keep away from the kitchen if cooking smells put you off eating, or ask someone else to prepare your food.
  • Generally, foods at room temperature have a mild smell compared with hot foods.
  • Eat and drink slowly.
  • Sit upright for meals and avoid tight clothing.

Taste and smell changes

Your treatment may cause your sense of taste or smell to change temporarily. You may not like foods which you once enjoyed, or find that you enjoy food which you previously disliked.

Here are some ideas that may help:

  • Experiment with flavourings, such as lemon juice, herbs, chutneys and pickles, spices, pepper, celery salt, chocolate, fruit, or cheese.
  • Add a little salt to foods that taste too sweet, and sugar to foods that are acidic (sour) or too salty.
  • If you have lost your taste for meat, try marinating meats using soy sauce, honey, ginger, fruit juice, or wine before cooking. Or try canned or fresh fish, eggs, beans, nuts, lentils, or cheese instead.
  • If your taste for salt is increased, eat small quantities of meats, such as corned beef, sausages, luncheon meat, bacon, ham, salty savouries, olives, anchovies, tinned or smoked fish, smoked chicken, tasty or feta cheese.
  • Use fruit or fruit puree in ice cream or desserts, junket, milkshakes, or puddings to add extra flavour.

Mouth or swallowing problems

There may be times when eating is physically difficult. You may have difficulty chewing or moving food around your mouth, difficulties swallowing, or pain in your mouth or throat.

Here are some tips to help:

  • Avoid foods that may sting your mouth, such as acidic or highly spiced foods; for example pineapple, kiwifruit, citrus fruits, tomatoes, spicy and salty foods, very hot or icy cold foods and drinks.
  • Avoid rough and crunchy foods, such as nuts, chips, and hard toast.
  • Add dressings and sauces to make food moist.
  • Try drinking liquids through a straw.
  • Cook meat until very tender so you do not have to chew so much.
  • It is important to keep your mouth clean to prevent infection and dental decay. It will help to clean your teeth with a soft toothbrush, and use a mouthwash after each meal. Check dentures are well-fitting. Ensure dentures are sterilised regularly to avoid infection.

Mouthwash recipe

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 cups water

Add lemon juice for flavour if desired (although this may sting if your mouth is tender and sore).

If your mouth is too sore to eat adequately, pain relievers may help. Ask your cancer doctor or nurse for their advice.

Dry mouth

  • Serve drinks with meals. Sip when eating.
  • Suck on ice blocks to provide moisture. Ice blocks will also help you to make saliva.
  • Tart foods and drinks may also encourage the flow of saliva.
  • Try pineapple juice or lemon juice in ice blocks for a refreshing mouthwash.
  • Avoid dry foods. Add gravy, sauce, custard, cream, milk, melted butter, oil, or dressing to make food moist.

Lemon juice is highly acidic and long-term use can lead to tooth decay.

“I have found that the dry mouth that followed radiation treatment on my tongue had two quite separate effects.The most obvious one is that I have less saliva. This is very easily addressed by sipping drinks while eating. The second, though, is less well understood. My saliva is now less able to disperse the fibres that are being chewed. This means that some food tends to wad in my mouth and is difficult to swallow. Sipping a drink helps a bit but the real gains come from including a natural ‘saliva substitute’, such as white sauce or mashed potato.

The foods that are most prone to wadding are salad greens, boiled rice, instant pasta, chicken breast, steak (unless very tender), and firm-fleshed fish. I love all of these but have difficulty eating them by themselves. I find it easiest to do so if they are served with potato or a white (flour-based) sauce.

Other tips

When the rice is prepared as risotto or a creamed rice dessert, its consistency is changed and there is no problem.

Instant pasta, such as spaghetti or lasagne is fine if they are part of a dish that has a sauce.

Cook a chicken breast in a way that retains its moisture and serve with potatoes or a white sauce.” Brian

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