Eating well when you have a chronic illness

The symptoms of a chronic illness like pain, fatigue and nausea can affect appetite and make getting the proper nutrition difficult.

Andy DeSantis, RD 3 minute read September 28, 2021
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There are ways to make sure you get the nutrition you need, even when you don't feel like eating. GETTY

Proper nutrition plays a massive role in the management of most health conditions, but if you are living with a chronic disease, healthy eating can be difficult. Whether you are dealing with pain, fatigue, nausea or other issues that affect physical or mental health, there are ways to make getting the right nutrients a little easier.

Smaller, more frequent meals 
Eating smaller meals, more frequently — rather than three large ones — sounds a bit cliché, but it’s valuable advice when you don’t have much of an appetite. Drinking less at meal time — particularly carbonated beverages — will also help, since too much liquids can create a feeling of fullness. Another tip is to chew food slowly, and create an enjoyable atmosphere for eating as much as possible, such as sitting at a comfortable table, or playing your favourite music.

Get enough protein
With certain chronic conditions, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, protein intake can greatly affect how well your body manages symptoms, so it’s important to be aware of protein-rich foods and to incorporate into your meals wherever possible throughout the day. Protein, found in foods like Greek yogurt, eggs, canned lentils and chickpeas as well as milk and soy milk, plays an important role in maintaining muscle mass, preventing muscle losses and supporting your immune system. Canned tuna, salmon and sardines are also great protein sources, and contains large amounts of two important nutrients for your health: Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids.

Protein is often also paired with iron, since adequate iron intake is important to prevent iron deficiency anemia which can worsen fatigue.

Nutritious liquids
When appetite is lacking or there’s no desire to prepare or eat meals, liquid ‘meal replacements’ can be effective to help increase caloric and overall nutrient intake. Whether these come in the form of popular brands such as Ensure or even homemade smoothies, liquids are not as filling as solids and may be helpful for those who aren’t hungry enough to meet their nutritional needs in the form of solid meals.

Replacing one meal or snack a day with a smoothie, for example, could be a good strategy to incorporate certain nutrient-dense foods that you may not otherwise feel like eating, like vegetables.

Here’s an example of a nutritionally balanced smoothie: At least one type of fruit such as bananas, berries or frozen fruit varieties; at least one type of veggie especially leafy greens like spinach or kale; at least one source of “healthy fat” such as avocado, nut butter or flaxseed; and at least one source of protein such as Greek yogurt, milk or protein powder.

Don’t say no to frozen meals
The frozen meals of today aren’t the frozen meals of 10 to 15 years ago. There are a number of appetizing frozen meal options on the market today that contain plenty of vegetables and protein and only require microwave heating.

Frozen fruits and vegetables, which retain their nutritional value, are also very convenient to work with for those who may not have the energy to shop or cook as often.

Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at