Do you frequently feel hungry but don’t want to eat? If you’re struggling with a loss of appetite, it can be challenging to nourish your body properly.
There are medical interventions, along with lifestyle strategies, you can use to manage your low appetite. Learn more about the causes of appetite loss and what you can do about it.
What is Appetite Loss?
Think back to the last time you were sick with a cold. You probably didn’t feel hungry at your regular meal times, and even your favorite foods weren’t appetizing. This is known as appetite loss, which can be short-term or chronic.
Appetite loss is defined as a lack of physical hunger cues.
You can experience diminished cravings and overall desire to eat food.1
In other scenarios you might feel signs of hunger but don’t want to eat. This can lead to skipping meals or ending meals early due to feeling full. It’s frustrating and a little bit confusing when none of your usual meals sound good!
Sometimes when appetite is low, you don’t feel traditional hunger cues, like a rumbling stomach. Instead, you may feel late signs of hunger, like fatigue, headaches, lightheadedness, dizziness, or irritability.
These sensations are unpleasant, and they can decrease quality of life.
Difference Between Appetite Loss and Anorexia
The medical term for appetite loss is anorexia. This is often confused with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, characterized by extreme dietary restriction, low body weight, and fear of weight gain.1, 7
They are two distinct conditions, but it is common for people with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders to experience appetite loss as a side effect of dysfunctional eating habits.7
Causes of Appetite Loss
- Acute illness, like the flu or a cold.
- Certain medications, such as ibuprofen, fluoxetine, and spironolactone.
- Early pregnancy.
- Certain chronic illnesses, like irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and hypothyroidism.
- Anxiety and high stress levels.
- Eating disorders.
It’s normal to have appetite fluctuations from day to day or to experience a loss of appetite while sick with an acute illness, like a cold or stomach bug.
However, if you’re experiencing a long-term loss of appetite, it can be a symptom of a more significant issue. Seek medical attention if your lack of appetite lasts more than a few days and the cause is unknown.
Side Effects of Appetite Loss
Long-term appetite loss can have side effects that can cause health problems.
People with poor appetite often struggle to eat enough calories and protein, which can lead to unintended weight loss and muscle wasting.
In some cases, this can contribute to malnutrition.8
Low appetite is also associated with reduced dietary quality and variety.8
This can make it challenging to eat a complete diet filled with essential nutrients, which can increase the risk of vitamin deficiencies.
People with appetite loss may experience low energy and fatigue related to undernutrition.
They may also experience changes in digestion, such as constipation due to a lower volume of total food and fiber consumed.3
What Can You Do About Your Loss of Appetite?
If you have concerns about low appetite, bring it up with your healthcare team.
There are treatment options that can help improve your desire to eat.
Talk to your Primary Care Doctor
Identifying the underlying cause of your appetite loss is the first step.
A visit to your primary care doctor is a great starting point. Your doctor will help rule out potential causes and refer you to specialists as needed.
Once the root cause of the low appetite is diagnosed, appropriate treatment can be given.
This will look different depending on the diagnosis. For example, it might look like starting a thyroid medication to treat hypothyroidism or seeing a psychiatrist and therapist for depression treatment.
Your doctor can also review your medication and supplement list to find alternatives to appetite-suppressing medications when possible.
If they can’t be removed, your doctor may prescribe an additional medication to stimulate appetite.1
If the underlying cause of your poor appetite is psychological, such as depression or anxiety, establishing care with a therapist can help you better manage these conditions.
A therapist will also work with you to identify and work around barriers to eating.
Meet with a Registered Dietitian
Regardless of the root cause of your low appetite, meeting with a registered dietitian can be helpful.
Your dietitian will help you come up with delicious and simple meal ideas while giving tips on overcoming low appetite.
They may also offer dietary supplement recommendations, like a multivitamin or an iron supplement, to fill in any gaps in your nutrition intake.
What To Do if You’re Hungry But Don’t Want to Eat
If you know your body is hungry but you don’t want to eat, there are a few simple tips you can apply at home. These include focusing on smaller, more frequent meals and choosing bland, low-fiber foods.
Small Frequent Meals
It can be intimidating to eat a regular-sized meal when you don’t have an appetite.
If you’ve always eaten three main meals daily, try spreading your food intake more throughout the day across five to six small meals. This can make eating feel much more manageable.
When you don’t have a regular appetite that tells you when to eat, it can be helpful to utilize external reminders, like timers or a written schedule.
Setting recurring reminders on your phone or work calendar can help you build the habit of eating small frequent meals.
Choose Easy-to-Digest Foods
When you have no appetite, many foods do not sound appealing.
Focus on foods that are bland and easy to digest. Soft, low-fiber foods are gentle on the stomach and won’t make you feel as full.
Try your best to include protein with every meal and snack. People with appetite loss tend to struggle with eating enough protein.1
Here are some simple meals and snacks that may be more appealing when you’re hungry but have no appetite:
- Baked potato with ground beef and cheese.
- Chicken salad sandwich.
- Fruit and yogurt smoothie or protein shake.
- Bean, cheese, and rice burrito.
- Banana with peanut butter.
- Buttered pasta with parmesan cheese.
- Scrambled eggs with toast.
Often, the thought of eating a solid meal doesn’t feel realistic when you have a low appetite.
Liquid sources of nutrition, like protein shakes and smoothies, can be a great way to fit in extra protein and calories when you aren’t eating enough.
In addition, cold foods and beverages can sometimes be more appetizing than hot food because there is less of an aroma and they feel refreshing.
Add ingredients like protein powder, greek yogurt, whole milk, or peanut butter to your fruit smoothies to boost protein and calories.
Since dehydration can worsen low appetite, it’s important to drink enough water throughout the day. Everyone has different fluid needs, so talk with your doctor or dietitian to learn how much you need to drink daily.
Sometimes drinking lots of water can make you feel too full to eat. It might be helpful to separate hydrating fluids 15-20 minutes before and after meals.
You can practice sipping throughout the day rather than drinking a lot at once.
Light Physical Activity
If you’re struggling with appetite, consider including some light physical activity in your daily routine. Studies show that people who regularly exercise have better appetites.9
Getting some fresh air may also help improve your mood.
You can start small with just 10 minutes. Examples include walking your dog, riding an exercise bike on low resistance, or doing a basic yoga flow.
See a Dietitian
If you’re struggling with appetite loss impacting your health and quality of life, it might be time to seek help.
In addition to medical care, a registered dietitian can assist you in managing your low appetite and preventing long-term health consequences.
Nourish makes it easy to get nutrition care. We’ll match you with a registered dietitian who will work with you virtually from the comfort of your home.
Frequently Asked Questions
See a Registered Dietitian with Nourish
- Covered by insurance
- Virtual sessions
- Personalized care