Surprising Tricks for How to Stimulate Appetite in the Elderly
As we age, mealtimes become increasingly important to maintain our health and well-being. So, it’s no secret that meals designed for older adults, especially those in soft or pureed form, might not always entice the taste buds. This lack of flavor can cause a decreased appetite.
You are not alone if you or your older loved ones are losing appetite. Elderly appetite loss is quite common. Are you curious about what can help stimulate an older person’s appetite?
It’s essential to understand what causes this loss of appetite because it raises your risk of falling short on key nutrients.2
This article will help you understand why older adults lose their desire to eat. It will also show you effective and surprising tricks to stimulate appetite.
Understanding Appetite Loss: What Causes Loss of Appetite in the Elderly?
Although elderly appetite loss is common, it is important to find out why. This is because reduced appetite can cause nutritional deficiencies and weight loss.
When your appetite wanes and you eat less, you may not get all the necessary nutrients you need. Nutritional deficiency increases the likelihood of the following:
- frailty (weakness)
- muscle weakness
- pressure sores
- osteoporosis (bone mineral and mass decrease)
- osteomalacia (bone softening)
- hip fractures
To avoid these, we need to know what causes loss of appetite in older adults.
Studies1 have shown that many factors can cause this. We can categorize them into three primary groups:
1. physiological factors related to the process of aging
2. emotional and mental factors impacting appetite
3. medications and health conditions that might decrease appetite
5 Physiological Factors That Can Cause Appetite Loss in Older Adults
Physiological factors are things that affect how the body normally functions. They can influence appetite in older people. They can change how you perceive food, regulate hunger, and experience eating.
Here are some of the most critical physiological factors that may contribute to appetite loss.
1. Changes in taste, smell, and vision
As you age, your senses of taste, smell, and vision can decline, affecting how you enjoy foods you once loved. This can make food less appealing, and you may lose your appetite.
2. Changes to hormones related to appetite regulation
Two key hormones help regulate your appetite: cholecystokinin (CCK) and ghrelin. CCK signals to your brain that you’re full, while ghrelin makes you feel hungry. Both help control when and how much you eat.
CCK and ghrelin1 change as you age. So, they affect your eating habits and can trigger elderly appetite loss.
3. Poor dental health
Oral health problems can cause difficulty with chewing or swallowing. These issues can make the entire eating experience unpleasant or downright painful.
Poorly fitted dentures and mouth sores can also contribute to eating challenges.
4. Decreased energy need
Older people have lower energy requirements, which can contribute to decreased appetite.
The amount of energy a person needs depends on factors such as
i. age-related changes1 in metabolism
ii. physical activity level
iii. differences in body composition
5. Changes to the digestive system
As you age, several physiological changes occur in your digestive system. These changes can impact your appetite.
For example, studies4 show that the rate at which the stomach empties food is slower in older adults. This means that food stays in your stomach longer. You may feel full for a long time and not feel hungry.
Constipation, another commonly reported condition among older adults, may also reduce appetite.
3 Emotional and Mental Factors That Can Cause Appetite Loss in Older Adults
Did you know that your feelings and state of mind can affect how much you feel like eating? Sometimes, it’s not about the food but what’s on your heart and mind.
Let’s explore how emotions and thoughts can influence your appetite. Also, let’s discuss what you can do to help.
Depression can manifest in different ways. One of them is changes in your appetite, either increased or decreased. It just depends on the form of depression happening.
Sadly, depression is more common among older adults. One reason is loneliness and isolation. As you get older, you may find it challenging to connect with others. You may retire and experience the loss of friends or loved ones. This can make it difficult to go to events and socialize. You may start feeling isolated. This can cause some sadness that results in depression.
If you or your loved one is dealing with chronic health conditions or disabilities, watch for signs of depression. Coping with these circumstances can drain you emotionally.
Also, you may find it difficult to transition to an assisted living facility. Losing your lifelong independence can understandably trigger feelings of hopelessness.
2. Living and eating alone
If you are living and dining alone, you may notice your appetite decreasing over time. There are several reasons for this.
- Practical challenges of grocery shopping and preparing your meals
- Health issues, such as low energy and not feeling well
- Difficulty moving around, which may make simple tasks feel impossible
Also, eating alone is much less enjoyable than sharing a meal with friends and family. Not having company during meals can take away the joy of eating. It might feel more like a daily task or a chore.
3. Anxiety and stress
Anxiety and chronic stress pose significant challenges for older individuals. They can happen because of
- declining health
- social isolation
- loss of independence
- longing for social interaction
When stressed, your body releases hormones like cortisol. These hormones signal to your brain that your body is in a “fight-or-flight” mode, which can suppress your appetite.
Chronic stress can also affect your digestion. You may develop nausea, indigestion, or stomach pain. These digestive issues can make eating less appealing.
Your Medications and Chronic Health Conditions Can Affect Your Appetite
According to a study published in BMC Geriatrics,5 over 80 percent of elderly Americans live with at least one chronic disease.
Many have several chronic health conditions requiring multiple medications. In the United States, people over 65 typically take four or more prescription drugs6 daily, with 39% taking five or more prescriptions.
Many of these drugs can lead to unintended weight loss. They do this by:
- reducing your body’s ability to take the necessary nutrients from food
- making you less hungry
- causing dry mouth, which can make it hard to swallow
In older adults, common health issues that can impact appetite include cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and heart disease. These conditions often bring about tiredness, pain, and trouble breathing. They can make you less interested in eating and cause a reduced appetite.
Is It Normal for the Elderly to Lose Appetite?
While a decrease in appetite is relatively common among older people, many factors can cause decreased appetite; often, more than one factor plays a role at once.
Factors that cause decreased appetite may include:
- physiological changes related to aging
- various social and psychological factors
- the impact of medications
- underlying medical conditions
So, the best answer is, “It depends.” Each situation is different, and it is important to understand the specific factors to address appetite loss effectively.
9 Surprising Tricks to Boost the Appetite of Your Elderly Loved Ones
If you are a caregiver or need tips for yourself, try these proven strategies for increasing appetite.
1. Introduce Small, Frequent Meals
Trick: Say goodbye to the three traditional large meals a day and introduce small, frequent meals.
Scientific Logic: The science behind this trick comes from the concept of portion control and its impact on appetite. Offering smaller meals more frequently prevents your elderly loved ones from feeling overwhelmed and experiencing uncomfortable fullness.
Example: Follow a meal schedule that includes a light breakfast, a mid-morning snack, a nutritious lunch, an afternoon snack, and a modest dinner.
2. Tailor Food Choices with Nutrient-Dense Options
Trick: Make nutrient-dense foods a central piece of meals. Create a list of favorite foods and nostalgic dishes and incorporate them into the weekly menu.
Scientific Logic: Nutrient density is crucial for seniors with limited appetite. These foods provide essential vitamins and minerals without needing large quantities to meet nutritional requirements.
Example: Power up meals by giving them a nutritional boost. Here are a few creative ideas.
- Add peanut butter to the morning smoothie for that extra protein punch.
- Top salads with finely chopped or hard-boiled eggs, walnuts, or pecans.
- Use extra virgin olive oil for your homemade salad dressing for healthy fats.
- Include plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables in meals to cover all the nutritional bases.
3. Improve Mood and Mental Health
Trick: Depression, sadness, and anxiety can dampen an older person’s appetite. But here’s the good news: keeping spirits up7 can do wonders for the desire to eat.
Scientific Logic: Mood plays a powerful role in the desire to eat. Negative emotions can reduce interest in food. A more positive outlook can stimulate appetite.
Example: Engage in activities you enjoy and encourage your loved ones to do the same. Taking leisurely walks can release those feel-good endorphins and work wonders for mood. Also, spend quality time with people you love. This can be uplifting.
4. Enhance Aroma, Taste, and Visual Appeal
Trick: Concentrate on enhancing the sensory appeal of dishes by improving aroma, taste, and visual presentation. Doing so can be a game-changer for older adults with impaired smell or taste.
Scientific Logic: Sensory stimulation can revitalize appetite. Experimenting with flavors, herbs, and spices can help those who can’t smell or taste well. But don’t use excess salt or sugar.
Example: Sprinkle in various herbs and spices to bring out those delicious flavors. Pay extra attention to how the food looks on the plate, making it visually appealing. And for those with visual impairments, improve the colors and lighting of the meal setup. Also, ensure you or your loved ones have the right prescription glasses.
5. Stay Hydrated
Trick: Encourage sipping water throughout the day. Also, serve hydrating foods with high water content.
Scientific Logic: Staying adequately hydrated is essential for overall well-being and maintaining a healthy appetite.
Example: Always have a bottle of water to sip throughout the day. Offer fruits like watermelon, cucumber, or strawberries. These fruits not only taste delicious but also help keep the body well-hydrated.
6. Create a Pleasant Dining Environment
Trick: Create an enjoyable dining environment to boost appetite.
Scientific Logic: Mealtime ambiance can significantly impact how much a person eats. A welcoming and pleasant atmosphere can enhance the dining experience.
Example: Transform the dining area with soft, warm lighting. Play soothing background music. Make the dining experience as calm, pleasant, and enjoyable as possible. This will encourage relaxation and meal enjoyment.
7. Use Appetite-Stimulating Supplements
Trick: Consider incorporating appetite-stimulating supplements, especially if there’s a challenge in maintaining a regular diet.
Scientific Logic: Some older adults, particularly those critically ill, may struggle to consume enough nutrients from regular meals. Appetite-stimulating supplements can help bridge the nutritional gap.
Example: Ask your doctor if you or your loved one can have appetite-stimulating supplements.
8. Maintain Social Connections
Trick: Encourage communal dining (eating with others). This enhances appetite.
Scientific Logic: Shared meals create a sense of social connection. They can make dining a more enjoyable and engaging experience.
Example: Arrange dining with family or friends whenever possible. Whether it’s a family gathering, a meal with neighbors, or even occasional outings to socialize over food, these interactions during meals can boost appetite.
9. Address and Manage Underlying Medical Conditions
Trick: Study medications, as many may suppress appetite.
Scientific Logic: Medications can lead to side effects. These may include nausea or changes in taste perception, which can affect the desire to eat.
Example: Review medications with your doctor. Discuss your concerns about appetite changes. Ask about adjustments to a medication regimen.
When to Seek Professional Help
Since many factors cause elderly appetite loss, you may not know whether it’s due to aging or something more serious.
Watch for red flags such as sudden weight loss and a noticeable disinterest in foods once loved. Appetite loss may signal an underlying issue if you or your loved one consistently refuses meals or eats very little.
If concerned, seek advice from a healthcare professional or dietitian to clarify these changes. Ask if they are a normal part of aging or a cause for concern.
Caring for yourself or your aging loved ones can feel overwhelming at times. Remember, you are not alone.
Be alert to signs of severe appetite loss. These signs may include sudden weight loss and loss of interest in favorite foods. Inadequate nutrition can speed up muscle loss, making seniors more vulnerable to infections, depression, and increased mortality.8
Apply the nine tricks we shared in this article to reignite the appetite, enhance the quality of life, and proactively maintain good health for you and your loved ones.
Finally, don’t hesitate to consult a healthcare professional or dietitian for tailored guidance.
- Pilgrim AL, Robinson SM, Sayer AA, Roberts HC. An overview of appetite decline in older people. Nurs Older People. 2015;27(5):29-35. doi:10.7748/nop.27.5.29.e697 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4589891/
- Fielding RA, Landi F, Smoyer KE, Tarasenko L, Groarke J. Association of anorexia/appetite loss with malnutrition and mortality in older populations: A systematic literature review. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle. 2023;14(2):706-729. doi:10.1002/jcsm.13186 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36807868/
- Malafarina V, Uriz-Otano F, Gil-Guerrero L, Iniesta R. The anorexia of ageing: physiopathology, prevalence, associated comorbidity and mortality. A systematic review. Maturitas. 2013;74(4):293-302. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2013.01.016 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23415063/
- Nieuwenhuizen WF, Weenen H, Rigby P, Hetherington MM. Older adults and patients in need of nutritional support: review of current treatment options and factors influencing nutritional intake. Clin Nutr. 2010;29(2):160-169. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2009.09.003 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19828215/
- Fong JH. Disability incidence and functional decline among older adults with major chronic diseases. BMC Geriatr. 2019;19(1):323. Published 2019 Nov 21. doi:10.1186/s12877-019-1348-z https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31752701/
- Charlesworth CJ, Smit E, Lee DS, Alramadhan F, Odden MC. Polypharmacy Among Adults Aged 65 Years and Older in the United States: 1988-2010. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2015;70(8):989-995. doi:10.1093/gerona/glv013 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4573668/
- Cox NJ, Howson F, Ibrahim K, et al. Mood and physical activity are associated with appetite in hospitalised older men and women. Age Ageing. 2022;51(12):afac297. doi:10.1093/ageing/afac297 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36580556/
- Hussain SM, Newman AB, Beilin LJ, et al. Associations of Change in Body Size With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality Among Healthy Older Adults. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(4):e237482. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.7482 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2803643#:~:text=Conclusions%20and%20Relevance%20This%20cohort,and%20other%20life%2Dlimiting%20conditions.