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Where to start in managing diet problems

Advice on how to start getting help with diet problems and who can help when you have cancer.

Assessing your dietary needs

Before anything can be done, your doctor and dietitian need to know about your illness and diet. They will ask you a lot of questions about the history of your illness and your appetite and weight.

This may seem like too much to deal with if you are very tired, weak or sick. But it is extremely important that they assess you properly for your nutritional problems so you get the right treatment. 

Your doctor will examine you and possibly arrange some other tests and investigations.

Below are some of the questions you doctor might ask.

  • What is your normal weight?
  • Have you been on any type of diet / lost or gained weight over the past 6 months - if so, how much?
  • What do you eat in a typical day and has this changed over the last 6 months?
  • Do you ever have diarrhoea or constipation or feel sick or vomit?
  • Have you lost your appetite?
  • Do you have any problems with eating, such as a sore or dry mouth?
  • Does food taste any different to you since you were diagnosed with cancer?
  • Do you have problems with swallowing or chewing?
  • Do you often feel tired or dizzy or confused?
  • What medicines are you taking?

Your doctor takes into account any other medical conditions that may affect your nutritional needs, such as diabetes.

After your nutritional assessment your doctor will examine you. This involves checking your body for signs of poor nutrition, including:

  • examining your tummy area, mouth (gums and tongue) and skin
  • taking your blood pressure and pulse
  • checking your weight
  • looking for loss of fat and muscle tissue
  • looking for signs of dehydration (dry skin, thirst, low urine output) or fluid build up (swollen ankles or abdomen)

You may also have urine and blood tests to give your doctor more information about your body and how it is absorbing food. But a detailed history of your diet and weight often tell more than laboratory tests.

UK guidelines about patient nutrition

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance on nutritional support for adults. This guidance says that patients should be screened for signs of malnutrition, or for risk of becoming malnourished. 

This screening should be done when people are admitted to hospital or at your first outpatient appointment, and involves checking your body mass index (BMI), assessing weight loss and looking at risk factors for malnutrition. 

The aim of the assessment is to make sure people get the help they need. This helps them recover quicker from their illness and treatment.

What you can do

You are probably the most important person in making sure that your nutritional problems are kept under control.

You should let someone know if:

  • you have lost your appetite
  • you feel sick
  • you are in pain
  • you are concerned about your weight

Don't just try to cope on your own. Don't be afraid to ask questions and get your doctors and nurses to explain things to you in simple terms.

If you understand your diet problems you will be much more able to cope and improve your situation. 

Specialists that can help you

The specialists below will help you with your diet problems.

Your specialist cancer doctors and nurses are there to help you and are skilled in treating all problems related to cancer and treatment. Your GP will also be willing to help.

Take your diet problems to whoever you feel most comfortable talking to. They work as a team and will pass important information on.

What they suggest will depend on:

  • any treatments that you are having
  • how long you have had the problem
  • how bad it is
  • what is causing it
  • if the problem is likely to be temporary

Dietitians play an extremely important role in managing diet problems in cancer. Most cancer hospitals have dietitians specifically trained in looking after people with cancer. Their training involves a university degree and clinical training. They can answer your questions and help you deal with any problems you have with eating. 

They can recommend specific meals, snacks, and food, and how food might need to be prepared to help you eat. For example, a pureed diet may help if you are having problems swallowing.

If you need it, your dietitian can plan a special diet to make sure you get all the calories and nutrients you need.

They may also recommend ‘meals in a drink’ that you can have if you can't face a meal. You can buy the drinks from a chemist or they are available on prescription. There are many other types of nutritional supplements which can help to boost your intake of nutrients. Your dietitian will advise you on these.

If you have a more serious problem and need drip or tube feeds your dietitian will be very involved in this.

They can also help arrange for any cultural or religious dietary needs while you are in hospital.

A pharmacist checks that the type and dose of any drug prescribed for you is safe.

If you need drugs to boost your appetite or to prevent weight loss, your pharmacist checks that you can take these safely with any other medicines you are having, including drip feeds or tube feeds.

Speech therapists don't just help people with speech problems. They also help people who have difficulty swallowing after surgery and radiotherapy to the head and neck area. It can also be due to the cancer itself.

They assess you, and can advise on the right texture of food or fluid to help you swallow safely.

Nutritionists can sometimes give useful help and advice if you are being treated for cancer.

A nutritionist is a health specialist who knows about food and nutritional science and about using nutrients to help people recover from illness. Nutritionists have varying levels of education, from little education to a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree. 

The term 'nutritionist' or 'nutritional therapist' is not a legally protected term and can be used by anyone. Most nutritionists are not employed through the NHS and you generally pay for their advice.

It is important to check that any nutritionist you see is properly trained. You can do this by contacting The Nutrition Society.

If you have a problem with diet, digestion or weight loss, you need to talk to your doctor, cancer nurse or dietitian.

Your doctor will most likely refer you to the hospital dietitian for help. Many cancer units and hospitals now have dietitians particularly for people with cancer.  They work with your doctor to decide together how best to manage your diet problems. 

Other people who can be important in helping to manage your diet problems include:

  • your family and friends
  • specialist nurses
  • social workers
  • religious leaders
For general information and support, you can contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
Last reviewed: 
25 Feb 2014
  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)
    Twycross R, Wilcock A and Toller S
    Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd, 2009

  • Nutrition and Cancer
    Edited by Clare Shaw
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance
    Nutrition support for adults – 2006

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