Diet and Nutrition for People With a Life-limiting Illness

  • Reference Number: HEY-969/2017
  • Departments: Nutrition Support

Your relationship with food

People who are very ill often have a poor appetite. The treatments and medicines you are taking can affect how you feel about eating.  Feeling sick and having diarrhoea or constipation can stop you from eating. You may feel too tired to eat, have a sore or dry mouth or throat, or find chewing and swallowing difficult. It is important to know that a reduced appetite is very common and is not something to worry about. You may not be able to eat like you used to.

Do not worry if your meals are not balanced.  Eat foods that you find comforting and give you satisfaction.  Eating little and often can be easier than having big meals. Preparing meals can be hard work at times.  Convenience foods such as ready meals or tinned food can be useful.  Friends and family may like to help by cooking or shopping for you.

Sometimes solid foods are difficult to eat. You might like to have a nourishing drink instead. Examples include milkshakes or smoothies made with full cream milk and ice-cream, coffee or hot chocolate made with cream or evaporated milk. Nutritional supplement drinks are available on prescription and contain extra protein, vitamins and minerals. Some people may find these useful, however do not feel like you have to take these if you don’t like them.  Discuss with your doctor or dietitian if you would like to try them.

Tips for eating and drinking

If you would like to try adding extra calories to your meals here are a few suggestions:

Coping with common problems

Sometimes symptoms can put you off your food e.g. feeling sick, taste changes, sore mouth, constipation, pain or anxiety.  Speak to your doctor or nurse as there may be some treatments that can help.  You may also find the following tips helpful:

Feeling sick

  • Try eating dry foods such as toast or crackers
  • If cooking smells make you feel sick, eat cold meals or food that can be heated in the microwave
  • Avoid strong smelling, greasy or fatty foods

Taste changes

  • Try adding lemon juice, chutney, herbs or spices to food
  • Fresh fruit and fruit juices can be refreshing
  • Try using plastic cutlery if food tastes metallic
  • Some people find cold foods taste better than hot foods

Dry or sore mouth

  • Moisten foods with plenty of sauce, gravy or custard
  • Choose foods that do not take much chewing e.g. milk puddings, ice-cream, soups with added cream/cheese
  • Try sipping cool or milky drinks

Difficulty chewing of swallowing

People can have difficulty chewing or swallowing for a variety of reasons.  If this is a problem try taking small mouthfuls of soft, moist foods.  Taking painkillers before mealtimes may help you chew and swallow more easily. If you find that food or drinks make you cough or you are having difficulty swallowing your tablets, speak to your doctor or nurse.

Mouth care

Keeping your mouth and teeth clean can help prevent mouth problems such as dryness, ulcers or infection.  Brush your teeth at least twice a day and use any mouthwashes you have been prescribed.  Rinse your mouth with water throughout the day to keep it moist.  Some people find sucking on ice chips/cubes can help sooth a dry mouth.

Where to find  more information

There is information on nutrition available on websites for individual conditions e.g. Alzheimer’s Society, Macmillan, Motor Neurone Association, British Lung Foundation.

If you are still concerned about your eating and drinking ask your doctor/nurse or GP to refer you to a dietitian.