Nutrition Challenges When You're Older or Sick

10 strategies for overcoming loss of appetite.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 03, 2012
4 min read

Like many things in life as we get older, eating can be a challenge.

The sense of taste, like the other senses, diminishes as we age. Appetite and taste can also be affected by medications. In addition, dental problems can make it difficult or painful to chew food.

Loss of appetite can make it difficult to get adequate nutrition, especially when you’re sick or not feeling well. What can you do to be sure you’re getting the nutrients you need?

“No single strategy works for everyone,” says Kathleen Niedert, RD, director of clinical nutrition and dining services for Western Home Communities in Cedar Falls, Iowa, who counsels many seniors on how to deal with loss of appetite. But for almost everyone, there are ways to eat an adequate diet even when you’re ailing and don’t feel like eating. Here are 10 strategies that experts recommend.

If you’re having trouble eating enough to get the calories you need each day, don’t worry about the fine points of nutrition advice. Eat anything and everything that appeals to you. Love chocolate milk? Help yourself. Ice cream? Serve up a bowl.

“If you’re experiencing a loss of appetite, the most important thing is to eat foods that supply basic energy to the body,” says Niedert. “Most dietitians now say people in institutions like nursing homes should be encouraged to eat whatever they like, since many have a problem with appetite.”

“If you’re well enough to prepare meals but have trouble getting motivated, find neighbors or friends in a similar situation and invite them over,” says Nancy Wellman, RD, past president of the American Dietetic Association. “Meals aren’t just an occasion for eating. They’re also a key part of how we stay connected with friends and family.”

Studies confirm that people who live with someone else or who eat meals in community settings tend to eat a healthier diet.

“A growing list of pre-prepared foods at grocery stores make it easier than ever for older people to put together healthy and easy-to-fix meals,” says Niedert.

Many items are available that require a minimum of preparation, including pre-peeled carrots, frozen chopped spinach, salad greens, prepared sauces, and complete meals. Microwaves make prepared meals easy to cook at home.

And just because foods are convenient doesn’t mean they are less nutritious. Vegetables, for example, lose nutrients the longer they sit around after they are picked. So frozen vegetables sometimes contain more nutrients than fresh vegetables that have sat around for days.

When taste buds lose their sensitivity and appetite wanes, it’s often hard to get excited about eating. As an antidote, expand the variety of your menu by adding foods or flavors you haven’t tried before.

If new foods don’t sound appealing, take another tack. Choose “comfort foods” that you’ve enjoyed in the past.

“Many of us have emotional connections to certain foods or dishes. When you’re experiencing loss of appetite, those connections can help make food more appealing,” says Wellman.

If you’re not hungry because food tastes bland, try adding extra spices and other flavors.

Add a spoonful of your favorite fruit preserves to yogurt, for instance, or a dash of mixed herbs to a simple pasta dish.

Make meals more appealing by choosing brightly colored fruits and vegetables.

If you are underweight, use creative ways to add calories to dishes, especially when you’re ill, says Niedert.

Switch from skim milk to 2% or even whole milk, for example. Add extra butter or olive oil to casseroles or pasta meals. Use half & half on your cereal. Add corn syrup to juice.

Don’t try these tips if you have diabetes, clogged arteries, or are overweight. Seniors with medical conditions affected by food should develop a nutrition plan with their doctors.

By providing balanced nutrition in an easy-to-consume form, liquid meal replacements can help you make sure you’re getting the nutrients and calories you need. Your doctor or dietitian can discuss options that are appropriate for you.

Dehydration can dampen appetite, so it’s important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of liquids.

Choose beverages that contain calories, such as fruit, vegetable juices, or soft drinks with sugar.

If you don’t feel like eating very much when you sit down regularly scheduled meals, try eating smaller amounts more often throughout the day.

“Eating a small snack can actually spur appetite, making you a little hungrier when you sit down to your next meal,” says Wellman.

Most communities have service organizations that provide meals to older people, either delivered at home or served in community senior centers. If you’re not well enough to prepare meals yourself, check with your local social services to find out what options are available. Senior community food programs are open to anyone 60 and older, regardless of income level. If your doctor indicates that you aren’t able to leave the house, you can qualify for meal deliveries.