Certain medical conditions, medications and dietary deficiencies zap your appetite. If you're unable to eat, or you feel full after just a couple of bites, you may not get all the nutrients you need from your diet. The resulting weight loss -- which includes valuable muscle mass -- puts you at risk for infection and weakness. If your lack of appetite is interfering with your quality of life and health, discuss the possibility of taking a prescribed appetite stimulant with your doctor. In cases in which a drug isn't appropriate, natural supplements, foods and strategies may also help tantalize your taste buds and boost your desire to eat.
Causes of Poor Appetite
Some antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs deaden your taste buds, or make foods that you enjoy have an unpleasant taste. Antibiotics slow gut motility, meaning food moves more slowly through the digestive tract so you feel full for much longer than normal. Certain heart medications, diuretics and pain relievers squelch your appetite or cause feelings of nausea after eating. A low intake of the mineral zinc in your daily diet may also make food taste bland and unappealing, thus negatively affecting your appetite.
Cancer, pain from arthritis or trauma and respiratory and heart problems can make your appetite almost nonexistent, too. Some people lose their appetite due to loneliness, extreme anxiety or depression. Older adults might forget to eat, or choose not to because they're alone and the process of making a meal is just too much effort.
Lifestyle Strategies to Boost Appetite
If you're taking a prescription drug for heart disease or pain that lists appetite suppression as a known side effect, ask your doctor if you can switch to an alternative drug. Don't just stop taking the drug to stimulate your appetite.
Mild exercise is another known appetite stimulant. You don't have to hit the gym for a power workout -- just a walk around the block a few times daily can help. Swimming, water aerobics and cycling on a recumbent bicycle are other forms of exercise that can be gentle, but still boost your appetite. These forms of exercise don't burn tons of calories either, so you won't have to worry about them causing excessive weight loss.
Some medications and illnesses give food a metallic taste; use plastic and paper utensils and serving plates and cook in a glass pot. Not using metal to cook helps reduce this aftertaste, making food taste more palatable so you're able to eat more as a result.
It's hard to cook for one, and you might skip meals altogether due to loneliness. Seek out company for mealtime at a local community center or invite friends over for lunch or dinner. Making meals eventful and social can stimulate your appetite.
Culinary Approaches to Stimulate the Appetite
Adding seasoning to foods also helps stimulate your appetite. Spices, herbs and acidic ingredients, such as vinegar or citrus juice, pump up flavor. For example, season chicken thighs with Italian herbs or marinate steak in soy sauce and garlic before broiling. Add mint, olive oil and lemon to grain salads, cook rice in onion and garlic or top fish with honey mustard before broiling. Also, mix up what you eat; try eggs and pancakes for dinner or soup and grilled chicken for breakfast. Have what sounds good to you, not what you think you should eat because of conventional advice.
Instead of trying to consume three large meals per day, take time for multiple, small calorie-dense snacks. For example, over the course of a morning, enjoy a handful of walnuts, a tablespoon of nut butter with a banana and a small bowl of granola with milk. Make a smoothie to sip between a light lunch and dinner by blending together strawberries, a banana, ice cubes, milk, Greek yogurt and a little honey. Grazing provides you with calories, but you don't have to feel overwhelmed by a large meal.
High-fat meals, carbonated drinks and cruciferous vegetables tend to fill you up quicker. You want some fat from nuts, avocados and olive oil to add calories and support good health, but creamy sauces, fried foods and fatty meat, such as brisket, can be too heavy. Instead of broccoli and cauliflower, go for a generous portion of steamed spinach or a sweet potato. Mix 100-percent fruit juice such as pomegranate or cranberry into plain water as a soda alternative.
Chew what you eat thoroughly to avoid uncomfortable belly fullness. Avoid drinking 30 minutes prior to meals or with meals as the liquid can make you feel too full.
Zinc Supplements to Stimulate Appetite
Zinc is readily available in many foods, including oysters, dark-meat chicken, fortified grains and beef. A poor appetite or limited eating plan can put you at risk of deficiency; older adults are particularly vulnerable. Not getting enough of this mineral may lead to a stunted appetite and weight loss. A review published in a 2011 issue of Recent Patents on Food, Nutrition and Agriculture noted that zinc supplementation has proven to improve appetite in zinc-deficient rats and shows promise in affecting human hunger hormones such as ghrelin.
Increase your intake of zinc-containing foods, or if you want to take a supplement talk to your doctor first to determine if it's safe and to get a recommended dosage. Zinc can negatively interact with a number of prescription drugs, including blood-pressure-lowering medications and antibiotics.
Drug Therapies for Appetite Stimulation
Cannaboid-based medications create strong cravings for food and increase the sensory experience of eating by affecting certain receptors on the brain, explains a review in the International Review of Psychiatry in 2009. Dronabinol is one such cannaboid labeled for use in appetite stimulation, especially for chemotherapy patients. It provides standardized concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychotropic compound contained in Cannabis sativa L, or marijuana. Dronabinol doesn't produce the "high" associated with smoked marijuana, though, and doesn't contain other uncharacterized substances that are present in a joint. Nabilone is another cannaboid instrumental in curbing nausea in cancer patients, which may improve appetite as a side effect.
Doctors also prescribe megastrol, another FDA-approved appetite stimulant, for cancer patients. It's a progesterone-based steroid hormone, but it can help people who have no appetite or are losing weight due to cancer or cancer treatments and older adults achieve a healthy weight. It takes effect in a couple of weeks and stimulates weight gain, primarily in the form of fat.
Oxandrolone is an anabolic steroid shown to improve appetite and growth in children with Cystic Fibrosis, showed a study published in the International Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 2010. It's often prescribed to people following extensive surgery or severe trauma.
Increasing Calorie Intake
If you can't stimulate your mild appetite, increase the calorie count of every bite you do eat. Focus on foods such as protein drinks, dairy products, eggs, meat and sauces to up your calorie density at meals and snacks. Choose nuts, dense whole-grain breads and dried fruit for snacks. Toss pasta in olive oil, cook hot cereal in milk or add dry milk powder to casseroles and smoothies. Drink calories from milk or 100-percent juice between meals. Spread nut butter on toast and fresh fruit. Add dry milk powder to casseroles, cereal, smoothies and glasses of milk to fortify the calorie count, too. Even if you only take in 200 calories at each sitting, the calories add up.