Having a poor appetite that leads to unexpected weight loss can place you at risk of malnutrition and health issues, which may have you searching for foods that increase appetite. Unfortunately, there's no single food or combination of foods that can stimulate your appetite.
However, you can make changes to what and how you eat to improve nutritional quality, as well as your nutritional status and health. If a medical condition or its treatment is the reason for your poor appetite, consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian for an individualized plan.
Eat Small, Frequent Meals
When you have very little desire to eat, and it's affecting your health, you may have to put a little more effort into meal time and eating. Eating smaller meals may help prevent you from feeling too full. Large meals can sometimes feel overwhelming if you're already struggling with your appetite, but you may have an easier time managing a mini-meal.
To be sure your body gets all the nutrition it needs, you need to eat more often. Create a meal schedule that won't add any extra stress that may further impede your appetite or desire to eat. Consider either eating at very specific times or at set intervals.
Your small, frequent meals may look something like this:
- Morning meal: an egg with whole-wheat toast
- Mid-morning meal: small bowl of cereal with milk
- Afternoon meal: 1/2 turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with creamy vegetable soup
- Mid-afternoon meal: cheese and an apple
- Evening meal: chicken, brown rice and peas
- Late-evening meal: 1/2 peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread with yogurt and fruit
If this is a struggle for you, ask a friend or family member to help or talk to your doctor about what can be done to make eating and meal time more desirable. According to the American Cancer Society, eating with a friend, watching your favorite show on TV or listening to pleasant music may help make your meal more enjoyable and stimulate your appetite.
Pack Nutrition Into Every Bite
When your appetite is poor and you're losing weight or it's affecting your health, you need to make sure every bite you eat counts. While total calories matter when you're concerned about weight and health, the sources of those calories are important too.
Your body not only needs calories, but also protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Fried chicken and french fries may seem like the logical choice when you're trying to pack in the calories, but these choices offer very little in terms of nutritional value.
The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that when you're combining calories and nutrition, go for nutrient density in most of your foods. High-calorie, nutrient-rich foods include:
- Sweet potatoes, peas, corn and winter squash
- Dried fruits, avocados and 100 percent fruit juice
- Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa and barley
- Beans and lentils
- Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna
- Nuts, seeds and nut butters
- Milk, yogurt and cheese
You can also add calorie-boosters to improve the caloric density of the foods you eat. For example, making your oatmeal with milk instead of water, adding slices of avocado to your sandwich, sprinkling sunflower seeds and raisins on your salad, adding cheese to your baked potato and cooking your veggies, grains and proteins with vegetable oil.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also suggests adding dry milk powder to your milk, soup, yogurt, casseroles and mashed potatoes. According to the USDA, 1/3 cup of nonfat dry milk powder has about 80 calories and 8 grams of protein (or about 16 calories and almost 2 grams of protein per tablespoon). Plus, nonfat dry milk powder is a source of many essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, zinc, potassium and many of the B vitamins.
Exercise to Stimulate Your Appetite
You may think exercise is counter productive when you're struggling with your appetite and weight, but it may help. The American Cancer Society suggests starting off slowly and adding more physical activity as your stamina improves and your body gets stronger. You don't have to join an exercise class or run a marathon to get the appetite benefits. You may find that a 10- to 20-minute walk around your neighborhood once or twice a day boosts your appetite.
In addition to being one of the ways to increase appetite, exercise also offers other health benefits. MedlinePlus says that exercise can lift your mood, help you sleep better and strengthen both your bones and muscles.
Drink Your Calories
You may find it easier to drink your calories when you have a poor appetite. There are many ready-made high-calorie nutrition drinks available at your local grocery store that can certainly help you get more calories and other good-for-you nutrients without much effort on your part. However, you can also create high-calorie nutrient-rich drinks at home, which gives you control over both taste and content.
Consider blending together:
- Milk, cocoa, peanut butter, banana and ice
- Strawberries, blueberries, soft tofu and ice
- Yogurt, peaches, mango and ice
You can also add dry milk powder or your favorite protein powder supplement to your homemade nutrition drinks to add more calories and protein.
Can Supplements Help Stimulate Appetite?
If you're nutrient deficient in certain vitamins or minerals, it's possible that they may be contributing to your loss of appetite. Eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods can help ensure your body gets all the nutrients it needs for good health. However, there aren't any specific supplements to increase appetite, with maybe the exception of fish oil, but the research isn't definitive.
A June 2017 study published in Lipids in Health and Disease, examined the effects of low-dose fish oil (0.3 gram) supplemented for six weeks on appetite and weight is a small group of patients (60 participants) with pancreatic cancer.
The researchers found that supplementing with fish oil helped stabilize both appetite and weight. However, it's important to note that the researchers in this study attributed the weight stabilization not to an increase in intake or appetite, but to a decrease in inflammation.
An earlier study published in Appetite in July 2013 found that fish oil supplements increased the appetite in a group of healthy, normal-weight people and suggested that it may serve as a tool to treat cancer cachexia. However, to be fair, this was a very small study with only 20 participants, and more research is needed before such claims can be made.
If you're thinking of adding supplements to increase appetite or have concerns that you may be deficient in essential nutrients, talk to your health care provider first.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Malnutrition"
- American Cancer Society: "Appetite Changes"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Healthy Ways to Gain Weight If You're Underweight"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Healthy Weight Gain"
- FoodData Central: "Milk, Dry, Not Reconstituted, Fat Free (Skim)"
- MedlinePlus: "Benefits of Exercise"
- Lipids in Health and Disease: "Dietary Supplementation With N-3-Fatty Acids in Patients With Pancreatic Cancer and Cachexia: Marine Phospholipids Versus Fish Oil - A Randomized Controlled Double-Blind Trial"
- Appetite: "Fish Oil-Supplementation Increases Appetite in Healthy Adults. A Randomized Controlled Cross-Over Trial"