May 01, 2022
The body thrives on routine and healthy habits around eating. Having regular mealtimes, choosing foods that nourish our wellbeing, and responding to the physical signals of hunger and thirst, help us to fuel our body, manage our energy and enjoy the social aspect of mealtimes.
‘Appetite is key to nourishing our body,’ explains dietician and Nourish founder Jane Clarke. ‘We may feel hungry but without the desire to eat, it takes huge effort to cook a meal, let alone eat it. We may put down our fork after only a few mouthfuls, or simply push the plate away untouched. But without food and the essential nutrients it contains, our body’s systems simply cannot function properly. That’s a risk when we’re in the best of health; if we’re already unwell, then that lack of nourishment can reduce resilience, increase recovery time, worsen symptoms and cause further health issues.’
Loss of appetite: causes and consequences
Nourish Drinks were designed to tempt the appetite with their all-natural and organic ingredients and delicious flavours. With a balanced formula of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats and 26 vitamins and minerals, they also provide additional nourishment when appetite is an issue, causing the body to want less when it really needs more fuel and sustenance.
Without sufficient nourishment, the body is less able to fight disease and infections, recover from illness or surgery, and to cope with the psychological impact of anxiety, depression, grief and other emotional and mental health issues. Wounds may not heal, bones will take longer to mend, and bed sores, constipation, dizziness and falls may be more likely – in fact, these can be signs of loss of appetite in someone you are caring for.
‘The first step to dealing with loss of appetite is to identify its cause,’ says Jane Clarke. Here, she explains the main causes of loss of appetite, to help you manage its impact on your own health, or recognise it in those you care for.
1. Loss of taste
One of the symptoms of Covid-19 is a loss of taste and smell – side effects that can linger long after the infection has cleared from our body. Both of these senses are linked to our enjoyment of food, and anecdotal evidence seems to show a link to loss of appetite in people whose sense of taste and smell has been impacted by Covid-19.
Common viral and bacterial infections, including Covid-19, flu, stomach bugs and urine infections, can all cause temporary loss of appetite. ‘As part of its natural anti-inflammatory immune response, the body releases chemicals called cytokines that regulate the appetite,’ explains Jane Clarke. ‘As we begin to recover, the appetite usually returns.’
Even if we don’t feel like eating, it’s important to ensure that we have sufficient fluids, so that we don’t become dehydrated, which may cause dizziness, loss of energy and worsen urinary tract infections. ‘Take small sips of water, diluted juice or a Nourish Drink regularly throughout the day to ensure you stay hydrated,’ recommends Jane.
Certain illnesses and long-term health conditions can cause loss of appetite. This may be due to lowered immune function, stomach upsets and other digestive problems, pain, or issues specific to the disease or condition. ‘When diabetes isn’t managed well, for example, it can lead to food travelling too slowly through the gut, so leading to loss of appetite,’ explains Jane.
‘Liver disease, heart disease, thyroid disease and certain cancers may also lead to loss of appetite. Your medical team should be able to advise on how to increase your food intake, or follow our tips and treatments for loss of appetite.
4. Chronic pain
Severe pain from conditions such as arthritis, migraines and fibromyalgia can cause a loss of interest in food – when your focus is simply on coping with pain and getting through the day, appetite often takes a back seat.
‘As a teenager and young woman, I suffered from severe pain that resulted in hospitalisation and extremely strong pain medication, and I struggled to stomach any food,’ says Jane Clarke. ‘But my experience also showed me that it was when I felt my weakest and most depleted that I needed food to help build my resilience. Soups and broths are nutrient-packed and soothing solutions for when you’re coping with pain. Or use Nourish Drinks to provide you with essential protein, carbs, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.’
5. Digestive issues
Conditions that affect the gut, including irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease, may affect appetite. ‘Feelings of nausea, stomach pains and spasms, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation can all reduce our desire to eat – the thought of eating more food when our stomach and gut is already in trauma is just to off-putting,’ explains Jane Clarke.
‘Eating small, regular amounts, rather than sticking to three meals a day; increasing fluid intake, including soothing herbal teas; and including pre- and probiotics in your diet can all help.’ Our page on Bowel Problems and IBS has more information for you.
6. Sore mouth and ulcers
A sore mouth, from ulcers or the side effects of medication, badly fitting dentures, or a painful tooth may be a simple cause for loss of appetite – after all, no one wants to chew and swallow food if it’s painful to do so.
‘Ask a doctor, pharmacist or dentist for a remedy to help the soreness. And in the meantime, focus on nutrient-rich softer foods, such as scrambled eggs, soups and smoothies, pureed fruits with Greek yoghurt, and Nourish Drinks, which will provide nourishment in an easy-to-take form,’ suggests Jane.
7. Disordered eating
Eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, can distort our desire to eat and make food appear an enemy. ‘A person with challenges around food may feel hungry but be afraid to eat, or their appetite may be suppressed by their condition. ‘So many of us have grown up with negative messages around food and appetite. If you notice signs that someone may have an eating disorder, or you want further advice and expert support, contact your doctor or a charity such as Beat.
Many prescription medicines can have an impact on appetite, including painkillers, antidepressants, antibiotics and diabetes drugs, as well as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy for cancer. Anaesthesia after surgery may also reduce appetite in the short term.
‘If you feel the medication you are taking is reducing your appetite, then do speak to your healthcare team about it – they may be able to prescribe an alternative drug, or provide relief for symptoms such as nausea, constipation and diarrhoea that are reducing your desire to eat,’ says Jane.
9. Psychological factors
Depression and anxiety can cause us to lose interest in food, as our body is impacted by stress hormones that suppress appetite. Grieving can also have a devastating impact on our desire to eat, as the trauma of loss affects our gut and digestion, our ability to sleep, as well as our emotional ability to cook and enjoy food without our loved one. ‘Making food and eating a part of our self-care plan can enable us to nourish ourselves physically and emotionally, and treat ourselves with kindness and respect,’ Jane says.
10. Age and dementia
Our appetite naturally tends to reduce as we get older – we may be less active, social isolation may make eating alone unappealing, or we may be unable to cook our own meals and unwilling to eat those prepared for us. Additionally, for someone with dementia, mealtimes may be distressing, or they may forget to eat. There are strategies that can help if you are caring for someone with dementia and you are worried about their loss of appetite. Our Nourish Drinks will also provide easy, measurable nutritional support for anyone who needs to supplement their food or wants a natural, tasty alternative to a traditional dinner.
How can I get my appetite back?
‘Think about the foods you love, and how you like to eat. For example, if you love strawberries, enjoy a few fresh, juicy strawberries before anything else; you may find it stimulates your appetite, so you add some cream for added energy, or have some cheese and crackers after – it really doesn’t matter what order you eat your food in, as long as you get some goodness,’ says dietician Jane Clarke. Best foods for loss of appetite include calorie-rich and nutrient-dense meals, where you don't have to eat much to get a lot of nourishment.
‘If you don’t like to eat alone, you could arrange to meet a friend for lunch. Or put on the radio for company, so the focus is less about you and the plate in front of you.
‘Finally, try to make mealtimes a pleasant experience, even if you can only manage a small amount right now. Pour your Nourish Drink into a glass, serve soup in a pretty bowl, or put out dinner on a side plate so it looks delicious but not overwhelming.’
What should I eat if I have no appetite?
‘If you have no appetite, or can only face eating small amounts of food, it’s important that you make every mouthful count,’ says Jane Clarke. ‘Don’t serve up big dinners as you’ll be put off by seeing so much on a plate. Instead, use small plates and bowls for your food, and enrich it with extra goodness and calories, so you can get more nourishment from every bite. For example, you might add protein-rich cheese to a small side of mashed or baked potato; shred some cooked chicken into a bowl of vegetable soup; or sip on a Nourish Drink all-natural meal alternative, and get all the protein, carbs, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals you need in one 330ml carton.’