Maintaining a Healthy Appetite

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on October 14, 2013
From the WebMD Archives

Not having an appetite is a frustrating problem for people who are underweight, or losing weight when they don’t want to. You know it's important to eat a variety of foods to maintain your health as you get older, but it's hard to eat when you’re not hungry or food isn't appealing.

There are many reasons why you may not be hungry. Lack of appetite could be a side effect of a medication you're taking. Your appetite may be low because you’re feeling depressed or anxious. It could also be that food just doesn't taste good. Or it's too much trouble to cook a meal. No matter what the reason, if you are underweight, increasing your appetite can also improve your health.

"Getting adequate nutrition each day can really make a difference in how you feel," says Kathleen Zelman, RD, director of nutrition at WebMD. "Eating well also keeps your body and mind strong and healthy."

Adult children can play a big role in enhancing nutrition for parents who've lost their appetite and may have lost interest in cooking altogether. "As far as making big meals, seniors have done it," says Joanne Koenig Coste, who was a caregiver to her parents and now works with family caregivers. "They've had their time doing that. It’s our turn now to think of things, small things, that will stimulate their interest in eating."

Here are eight ways to help boost your appetite and nutrition.

1. Go for Nutrient-Rich Foods

"You want to be careful not to fill up on empty calories, such as baked goods, chips, and soda," says Zelman. "As you age, you need fewer calories, but have higher nutritional needs. So the less you’re able to eat, the more nutritionally dense your meals should be." This means eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein and limiting foods high in fats and sugars.

Many older people resort to eating processed or fast foods because they don't need to prepare it, Coste tells WebMD. Children can help out by preparing and portioning out nutrient-rich foods so that they're ready to eat, microwave, or pop in the toaster oven. This could include snack-size bags of washed berries or nuts, already-chopped vegetables for munching or an easy sauté, or the makings of a salad in a plastic container. And when you make a stew or soup for your dinner, make some extra to bring to them.

How much you need to eat in your senior years depends on your activity level and whether you're male or female. Women over age 50 need about 1,600 to 2,200 calories each day while men need about 2,000 to 2,800 calories. Inactive men and women should aim for the lower range of calories, while those who are most active should try to eat the highest amount of calories in that range.

2. Have Smaller Meals More Often

For many people, having smaller, frequent meals may be more appealing than having three larger meals. Smaller meals may also be easier to prepare.

"One idea is to choose a food that you really like, and then augment it to make a small meal that’s packed with nutrients," says Carole Palmer, RD, professor of nutrition and oral health promotion at Tufts Dental School in Boston. For example, if you like toast with jelly, add a bit of peanut butter to get some protein. Or if you enjoy tuna fish, try it with a slice of tomato or cheese to get extra vitamins and calcium.

"A whole plate of food can be overwhelming," Coste says. "So it's important that family members prepare and package foods in small portions." At her parents' house, Coste would put out bowls of nuts and make "puddings pies" with a filling of yogurt mixed with fruit or Jell-O and sliced in advance. Then she'd follow up with a phone call. "I'd say, 'Mom, I'm having some pudding pie. Why don't you?'"

If you find that you're having trouble eating any food, nutrition supplement drinks are another option. Palmer says she always recommends food first, but that these drinks can be a good way to maintain nutrition. "People often like to sip them throughout the day," she says.

3. Make Food Appealing

If you’re not hungry because food isn't appealing to you, try to find ways to make it more appetizing. "We eat with our eyes,” says Zelman. "So make your plate as appetizing and colorful as possible." Try combining foods of different colors, such as having broccoli or red pepper with pasta, or simply by placing a few sprigs of parsley on your plate. Eating foods of various colors also assures that you're getting all of the nutrients you need.

Adding variety to your diet can help make meals more exciting too. Trying a new recipe or a new type of food every so often is a good way to pique your interest in eating.

If you're preparing food for your parent, adding a touch of sweetness can often make food more appealing because many people develop a sweet tooth in their senior years. Coste suggests putting a bit of fruit preserve on cream cheese and whole grain bread or whipping up a blender drink of lemonade, soda, and a scoop of lemon sherbet. "It's almost like having a cocktail," she says.

Your sense of smell also plays a role in appetite. "In some cases, warming food will make it more fragrant, and may make you feel hungrier," says Palmer. "Though for some people, cold food is more appetizing. It’s really up to the individual, so you need to decide what’s most appetizing you to."

Because our sense of smell and taste often dull with age, you may also find food may not taste as good as it used to. Punching up the flavors can help. Try adding spices or herbs to add to the natural flavors of foods. Other flavor enhancers like vinegar, lemon juice, and mustard can also add a kick. Don't add extra salt -- most people already have too much sodium in their diet.

4. Keep It Simple

Make mealtime as easy for yourself as possible. "Having a meal doesn’t have to be a big production," says Zelman. "Stock your refrigerator and pantry with foods you enjoy so you always have something on hand." When you cook, make enough for a few days, or trade extras with a friend. It may also be helpful to keep a few of your favorite easy meal ideas in a notebook, so you can look through it when you need a meal in a pinch.

5. Don’t Fill Up on Fluids

It can be easy to fill up on fluids -- such as water, juice, coffee, or tea -- before you're done eating. If this is the case for you, don't drink until after your meal. "Enjoy your meal first, and then have your coffee, tea, or other beverage," says Palmer. "You want to be sure to get all of the nutrients from your food before having drinks that are not so nutrient-dense."

6. Get Some Exercise

Sometimes getting a little exercise can increase your appetite. "Just getting outside in the fresh air can often do wonders for your appetite," says Zelman. "Even if all you can manage is a short walk around the block, you may find that it helps." Exercise can also help with digestion.

7. Find Company

"Some people find that their appetite increases when they share a meal with others," says Zelman. If you find that you often eat meals alone, look for opportunities to eat with others. You can invite family or friends over for a meal, or go to a senior meal center or other community dinner. Or join a dinner or lunch club, or other social group where people get together for meals.

Sons and daughters can play a big part here as well. "Many of the 'well elderly' have lost interest in eating because they're depressed," Coste says. Cooking for your parents can be a chance to provide their diet and taste buds variety and send them home with food, as well as providing company.

Of course, there are times when you will eat alone. Try to pamper yourself and make mealtime special. Use a festive tablecloth or light a candle. Turn off the TV and listen to your favorite music instead.

8. Know When to Ask for Help

"If you’re really struggling to get enough nutrition each day, ask for help," says Zelman. Your doctor or a nutritionist may be able to help you find other ways to increase your appetite and meet your nutritional needs.

Show Sources


Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition at WebMD.

Joanne Koenig Coste, former caregiver; lecturer on family caregiving; author, Learning to Speak Alzheimer's.

Carole Palmer, EdD, RD, professor of nutrition and oral health promotion at Tufts Dental School in Boston.

National Institute on Aging web site, “Healthy Eating After 50.”

Colorado State University Extension web site, “Nutrition and Aging.”

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