There are numerous factors that can contribute to a loss of appetite (LOA). These range from medical conditions and the side effects of medications to the physical and emotional causes. Some diseases are more commonly associated with appetite loss, for example, according to Cancer Research UK, approximately half of cancer patients experience LOA at some stage. The most effective treatment and management of LOA is to manage the underlying condition causing it. However, there are also some ways to manage the complications that may arise due to a decreased appetite. To reduce the likelihood of complications arising, it is advisable to consume small portions of calorie-dense foods that offer significant nutritional benefits.
The most important thing is to ensure you are still meeting your daily nutritional needs. Some common complications to look out for are fatigue, weight loss, and muscle weakness. If you have any concerns, it is recommended to seek assistance from a doctor or medical professional who can provide appropriate treatment for the underlying cause or assist in managing any complications.1
Loss of appetite (LOA) can be a result of many different reasons. These range from medical conditions and the side effects of medications to the physical and emotional causes. Some diseases are more commonly associated with appetite loss.
Causes of loss of appetite
There are lots of factors that can cause a loss of appetite. Cleveland Clinic divides these into four distinct subcategories: health conditions, side effects of medication, physical causes, and emotional or psychological causes.
Specific medical conditions include:
- Digestive diseases
- Chronic kidney and liver disease
- Cardiac disorders 2
Some medications that can cause LOA include:
- Opioids (such as morphine)
- Antidepressant SSRIs like citalopram, and fluoxetine 3
- Anti-parkinson's medications
- Heart medications
- Mood stabilisers 1
This does not list all the medications associated with loss of appetite so it is important to read the package insert that comes with your medication so you are aware of the potential side effects. However, if you are still unsure, contact a healthcare professional, like a doctor or pharmacist, who will be able to answer any questions you may have.
Certain physical factors could lead to a diminished sense of taste or make eating unpleasant. This includes loss of taste, pain, physical injuries, or any other condition that causes discomfort during meals.
Loss of appetite may also occur with certain mental health disorders including anxiety and depression and other disorders such as ADHD. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa also cause a loss of appetite. Also, any significant changes to your mood may cause you to experience a change in appetite, for example, shock, grief, and stress.2
Management and treatment for loss of appetite
There is no straightforward treatment method for loss of appetite as it varies depending on what the cause is. However, some easy methods to try include eating small amounts of food more regularly, trying liquid food as an alternative, and making sure that the foods you do eat have a high nutritious value and are calorie-dense to prevent any complications developing due to poor nutrition.2
For loss of appetite, the NHS recommends foods like:
- Healthy fats (such as oily fish and peanut butter)
- Protein-dense foods (like meat and dairy)
- Dried fruit
You can also see a registered dietitian for more advice.
Alternatively, there are appetite-stimulating medications that could be offered. Research indicates that an appetite-stimulating medication containing multivitamins (including B12, B3, and B6), lysine, and zinc could be an effective treatment for loss of appetite.2
A loss of appetite can be very serious and cause rapid weight loss, impaired physical function and malnutrition. Older age groups are at risk of more severe complications and are also more likely to experience a loss in appetite due to physical restrictions, diseases, and medications. However, any age can be affected and it is always best to contact a healthcare professional if you are concerned.3
Common complications to look out for if you are experiencing a loss of appetite include:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Impaired physical function
- Muscle loss
- Feeling weak
- Nutritional deficiencies
- More prone to fractures
- Increased risk of falls
- A decline in quality of life
- Increased risk of fragility 1
How can I prevent loss of appetite?
Sometimes a loss of appetite is caused by a short-term problem and will usually resolve itself therefore it is difficult to prevent. However, more chronic cases may take more time to resolve. Although there is not an easy answer for preventing loss of appetite, there are a few options. The best approach is to manage the underlying cause of your loss of appetite. This includes managing diseases linked to a loss of appetite, checking any medication labels for possible side effects, treating any physical restrictions, and reducing stress.1
How common is loss of appetite?
Loss of appetite is very common and most people will experience either acute or chronic LOA at some stage. However, it is more common in certain diseases, for example, 48% of adults with major depressive disorder experience a LOA.4
Who is at risk of loss of appetite?
Anyone is at risk of experiencing a loss of appetite. However, it is more common among older people and people suffering from serious illnesses such as cancer. Also, you are more likely to have a LOA if you take lots of medications due to a high probability of LOA being one of the side effects.1
What can I expect if I have a loss of appetite?
Appetite loss can cause unintentional weight loss, fatigue, weakness, dislike towards food, and nutritional deficiencies.1
Is loss of appetite a sign of pregnancy?
LOA can be a symptom of pregnancy. Pregnancy can cause morning sickness and nausea which can reduce appetite. Also, the mood and emotional changes experienced during pregnancy may alter your appetite.5
When should I see a doctor?
Once you notice any complications due to a poor appetite it is best to contact your doctor. They will be able to identify the underlying cause of your change in appetite and recommend a treatment plan suitable to your specific case.
Appetite loss is caused by a variety of factors, ranging from medical conditions such as cancer, depression, and eating disorders to physical impairments, emotional factors like stress, and even the side effects of many medications. Loss of appetite is mostly short term however it can be chronic in some cases, depending on the underlying cause. If the problem is acute there are at-home methods that can be done to manage appetite loss and prevent further complications from developing. This includes eating small amounts of nutritious, calorific foods that are easy to eat and include healthy fats and protein in any meals you are able to eat. If the condition is more chronic it is best to see a professional who can help treat the underlying problem and help reduce the risk of any negative consequences as a result of poor appetite such as weight loss, fatigue, malnutrition, and muscle loss. Although there is no quick fix for appetite loss, there are many helpful methods and professionals available to help you resolve the issue.
- Pilgrim A, Robinson S, Sayer AA, Roberts H. An overview of appetite decline in older people. Nurs Older People [Internet]. 2015 Jun [cited 2023 Jul 14];27(5):29–35. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4589891/
- Nagaraj S. Loss of appetite in adult patients: effectiveness and safety of an appetite stimulating medication in an open-label, investigator-initiated study in India. J Nutr Metab [Internet]. 2022 Jan 7 [cited 2023 Jul 14];2022:2661912. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8759923/
- Verhaegen AA, Van Gaal LF. Drugs that affect body weight, body fat distribution, and metabolism. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Blackman MR, Boyce A, Chrousos G, Corpas E, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000 [cited 2023 Jul 13]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537590/
- Simmons WK, Burrows K, Avery JA, Kerr KL, Bodurka J, Savage CR, et al. Depression-related increases and decreases in appetite reveal dissociable patterns of aberrant activity in reward and interoceptive neurocircuitry. Am J Psychiatry [Internet]. 2016 Apr 1 [cited 2023 Jul 14];173(4):418–28. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4818200/
- Regodón Wallin A, Tielsch JM, Khatry SK, Mullany LC, Englund JA, Chu H, et al. Nausea, vomiting and poor appetite during pregnancy and adverse birth outcomes in rural Nepal: an observational cohort study. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth [Internet]. 2020 Sep 17 [cited 2023 Jul 14];20(1):545. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-020-03141-1