Overcoming poor appetite

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Poor appetite is a common nutritional challenge for patients with pancreatic cancer. Sometimes surgery, prescription drugs or the cancer itself can change the way food tastes or cause the patient’s appetite to decrease.

The following tips may help increase appetite and improve interest in eating:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Exercise lightly before meals to stimulate appetite.  Even a short walk may be invigorating.
  • Select enjoyable foods and foods that have a pleasant aroma.
  • Plan meals the day before eating them.  Have someone help plan and prepare meals.
  • Stay well hydrated. Drink 6-12 cups of clear liquids throughout the day.
  • Aim for 6-8 small meals and snacks per day.  Take advantage of the time of day when most hungry. 
  • Eat meals and snacks at scheduled times, even if not hungry.
  • Substitute a meal with a nutritional supplement drink or a homemade smoothie made with protein powder. If you have been prescribed pancreatic enzymes, be sure to take them with these drinks.
    • Boost®, Ensure®, Carnation Breakfast Essentials® and/or Orgain® nutritional drinks add calories and protein.
    • Glucerna and/or Boost Glucose Control products may be appropriate for people with diabetes.
    • Scandical®, Benecalorie® and Beneprotein® add calories or protein when accompanying regular meals.
  • Place small bowls of nutritional snacks, such as nuts and fruits, in frequently-used areas of the home to encourage healthy snacking between meals.
  • Take anti-nausea medication at the first sign of queasiness or nausea.  Delay eating favorite foods if feeling nauseous.
  • Arrange food attractively:
    • Vary the colors of foods on a plate
    • Use garnishes such as lemon or lime wedges
  • Make mealtimes pleasing:
    • Add color to a place setting
    • Watch a favorite television show or movie
    • Play music in the room
  • Use a large plate and put small portions on it. By doing this, the amount of food may appear less overwhelming.
  • Manage taste changes if these are contributing to decreased appetite.
  • Marinate red meats before cooking if they taste strong.  Or, substitute red meat with fish, chicken, eggs, low-fat cheese or vegetarian alternatives.
  • Eat high-protein foods within an hour of taking them out of the refrigerator. High-protein foods, such as cheese, tuna, chicken, lean ham, egg salads, deviled eggs, milkshakes, eggnogs, puddings and custards, may taste better at room temperature.
  • Add fresh fruits to milkshakes, puddings, and custards to add flavor.
  • Perk up the taste and smell of food with seasonings or spices such as lemon juice, mint, basil and other herbs. Add sugar and salt to foods, if their intake is not restricted.

If poor appetite and weight loss persist, the doctor may prescribe medication to increase appetite. Some of these medications are listed below. It can take several weeks of use before appetite enhancement occurs, so take these medications as prescribed for at least a month to determine their effectiveness. Many of these medications have side effects that should be discussed with the doctor.

  • Megestrol acetate (Megace® or Megace ES®)
  • Dronabinol (Marinol®)
  • Steroids such as prednisone or dexamethasone
  • Anti-depressants such as mirtazapine (Remeron®)

For more information on diet and nutrition, please contact a Patient and Liaison Services (PALS) Associate toll-free at 877-272-6226 or email pals@pancan.org.  PALS Associates are available M-F 7am-5pm Pacific Time.


The information and services provided by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc. are for informational purposes only. The information and services are not intended to be substitutes for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you are ill, or suspect that you are ill, see a doctor immediately! The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network does not recommend nor endorse any specific physicians, products or treatments even though they may be mentioned on this site. In addition, please note that any personal information you provide to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s associates during telephone and/or email consultations may be stored in a secure database to assist the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc. in providing you with the best service possible. Portions of the constituent data stored in this database may be used to inform future programs and services of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc., and may be provided in aggregate form to third parties to guide future pancreatic cancer research and treatment efforts. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc. will not provide personal identifying information (such as your name or contact information) to third parties without your advanced written consent. 140113