Risk of Malnutrition

Malnutrition occurs when a person does not eat or absorb enough calories of key nutrients needed for healthy body function. Cancer patients who are malnourished are at greater risk for health complications, hospitalization, infections, loss of muscle strength and poor quality of life. Malnourished patients may need to delay, change or stop cancer treatment.

To decrease the risk of malnutrition, try to avoid losing weight during treatment unless you are advised to lose weight by your healthcare team.

Tell your healthcare team about about any weight loss, decreased appetite or side effects that make it difficult for you to eat. 

When you’re undergoing cancer treatment, your body needs more calories and protein. Eating challenges such as difficulty swallowing, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue make it difficult to eat enough calories and protein. They key is to make every bite count by eating foods high in protein and calories.

Follow these tips to help increase calories and protein intake:

Eat small, frequent meals instead of 3 large meals.

  • Eat at least 5-6 small meals or snacks per day.
  • Eat every 2-3 hours even if you do not feel hungry.
  • Set a timer to remind you when it is time to eat.
  • Eat the most when you feel hungriest.
  • Eat foods high in protein such as chicken, fish, meat, eggs, nuts, and beans first.

Use smoothies and shakes to get in calories and protein.

  • Liquids can be easier to consume than solid foods.
  • Smoothies or shakes can serve as a small meal replacement.
  • Add ingredients such as whole milk, powdered milk, protein powder, peanut butter, ice cream or yogurt to smoothies or shakes to add calories and protein.
  • Premade liquid nutrition supplements are available at grocery and drug stores. Ask a registered dietitian which type is best for you.
  • Ingredients such as whole milk, peanut butter, ice cream, yogurt, or fruit can be added to liquid nutrition supplements.

Add more fats to foods to increase the calories.

  • Fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein.
  • Use butter, oils, mayonnaise, sour cream, and salad dressings liberally.
  • When cooking, use oil or butter instead of a nonstick spray.
  • Add mayonnaise to sandwiches and tuna or chicken salad.
  • Add peanut butter or cream cheese to toast and crackers.

Drink most fluids between meals instead of with meals.

  • Drinking liquids such as water, juice, or soda while you eat can make you feel full faster.
  • Drink only small amounts of liquids with meals.
  • Drink higher calorie fluids like juice or milk between meals.
  • Drink smoothies, shakes, and liquid nutrition supplements with a meal or in place of a meal.

Keep quick and easy snacks with you.

  • Try granola bars, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, nuts, and dried fruit.
  • Keep your favorite snacks around so you will eat more.

Eat a bedtime snack.

  • A small snack before bed will not affect your appetite at your next meal.
  • Peanut butter crackers, half a sandwich, yogurt, or cereal are good bedtime snacks.


Print our Nutrition Tips for Managing Weight Loss to hang on your refrigerator or kitchen cabinet as a reminder. 

Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s free handout Side-Effect Management: Managing Low Appetite and Weight Loss for more information.