How to Increase Appetite in Elderly!

As we age, our bodies undergo numerous changes, and one of the most significant is a decrease in appetite. This shift can lead to various health challenges, especially among the elderly. 

As a Registered Dietitian with over a decade experience working with the elderly, I frequently get asked how to increase appetite in elderly individuals.  Well I’m sharing my top tips with you today.

A reduced desire to eat, often overlooked, is a critical issue that can impact overall health and quality of life. Understanding the underlying causes of this decreased appetite is essential for caregivers, family members, and healthcare professionals. 

From medications affecting taste to the natural decline in bodily functions, several factors contribute to this phenomenon. Addressing these causes is not just about ensuring adequate nutrition; it’s about maintaining the joy and social aspects of eating, which are integral to our lives. 

This article delves into the common reasons behind the reduced appetite in seniors and offers practical, evidence-based strategies to rekindle their interest in food. My goal is to provide a comprehensive guide that helps the elderly not only eat to live but live to eat, enjoying every meal to its fullest.

two elderly individuals a husband and wife eating a table with bright windows behind them, they are smiling.

Common Causes of Decreased Appetite in the Elderly 

Medications and Their Side Effects

Many elderly individuals rely on medications for various health conditions. These drugs, while beneficial, can have side effects that diminish appetite. 

Here are some common medications prescribed to the elderly that have nutrition side effects.

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) – Examples: Fluoxetine (Prozac), Sertraline (Zoloft), Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • ACE Inhibitors – Examples: Lisinopril (Zestril), Enalapril (Vasotec), Ramipril (Altace)
  • Chemotherapy Drugs – Examples: Doxorubicin (Adriamycin), Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), Methotrexate (Trexall)
  • Opioid Pain Relievers – Examples: Morphine, Oxycodone (OxyContin), Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Antibiotics – Examples: Amoxicillin, Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), Metronidazole (Flagyl)
  • Diuretics – Examples: Furosemide (Lasix), Hydrochlorothiazide (Microzide), Spironolactone (Aldactone)
  • Neuroleptics/Antipsychotics – Examples: Risperidone (Risperdal), Quetiapine (Seroquel), Olanzapine (Zyprexa)

Chronic Illnesses and Their Impact on Appetite

Chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, or kidney problems can suppress appetite. The fatigue and discomfort associated with these conditions can reduce the desire to eat. 

There are also certain illnesses that may directly affect the digestive system, leading to a decreased interest in food.  Some of the illnesses include.

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
  • Peptic Ulcers
  • Chronic Liver Disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Gallbladder Disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Celiac Disease
  • Gastrointestinal Cancers
  • Diverticulitis

Changes in Taste or Smell

Aging often brings a natural decline in the senses of taste and smell. This change can make previously enjoyable foods taste bland or unappealing. When food doesn’t stimulate these senses as it once did, the elderly might find eating less satisfying.

Dental Issues and Eating Difficulties

Dental problems, common in older adults, can make eating painful or difficult. Issues like missing teeth, gum disease, or poorly fitting dentures can turn mealtime into a challenging experience, leading to a reluctance to eat.

Mental Health Factors

Mental health conditions like depression or anxiety can significantly impact appetite. These issues can lead to a decreased interest in food and a lack of motivation to prepare meals. The psychological effects of these conditions often diminish the pleasure associated with eating.

Social Isolation and Its Effects

For many seniors, eating is a social activity. When isolated, they may lose the motivation to cook or may not enjoy eating alone. This lack of social interaction can lead to a decreased appetite and reduced interest in maintaining regular meal times.

The Role of Nutrition in Elderly Health 

Importance of a Balanced Diet for Seniors

A balanced diet is vital for seniors, playing a key role in maintaining their health and quality of life. Nutrient-rich foods support cognitive function, strengthen bones, and enhance immune response, which is crucial as the body becomes more susceptible to illnesses with age. 

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats can help manage weight, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and promote better digestion.

Achieving this balance can be challenging due to changes in metabolism and dietary needs. Seniors often require fewer calories due to a less active lifestyle but need more of certain nutrients to combat age-related changes. 

For instance, foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and walnuts, are beneficial for heart health, while antioxidants found in berries and leafy greens can help protect against cellular damage.

Nutritional Needs and Challenges in the Elderly

The nutritional needs of the elderly are distinct and require special attention. Calcium and vitamin D are essential for maintaining bone health, with recommended daily intakes of 1,200 mg of calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D for those over 70. Fiber is also crucial for digestive health, with a recommendation of 21-30 grams per day to prevent constipation and support gut health.

Yet, seniors often face challenges in meeting these nutritional requirements. Diminished appetite, changes in taste and smell, and dental issues can make consuming a varied diet difficult. 

Certain medications can interfere with nutrient absorption, necessitating a more tailored approach to diet. It’s important for seniors or their caregivers to plan meals that are nutrient-dense yet appealing, considering factors like ease of eating and personal taste preferences.

Practical Tips to Increase Appetite in Elderly

Serving Smaller, More Frequent Meals

One effective strategy to enhance appetite in seniors is to serve smaller, more frequent meals rather than three large ones. This approach can prevent overwhelming feelings of fullness and make eating more manageable. 

Smaller meals can also maintain a steady blood sugar level, providing consistent energy throughout the day. For instance, six small meals that include a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats can be more appealing and less daunting for seniors.

This method can be particularly beneficial for those with digestive issues. Large meals can be hard to digest, leading to discomfort that discourages eating. Smaller portions are easier on the digestive system and can encourage a more regular eating pattern, ensuring consistent nutrient intake.

Adding Flavorful Herbs and Spices

As the sense of taste diminishes with age, foods can become less appealing. Incorporating herbs and spices is a great way to enhance flavor without adding excessive salt or sugar. 

For example, cinnamon can add sweetness without sugar, and herbs like basil or thyme can enhance savory dishes. These natural flavor enhancers can make meals more enjoyable and stimulate appetite.

Experimenting with different herbs and spices can also turn meal preparation into a more engaging and creative activity. This can be especially beneficial for seniors who take an active role in their meal preparation, as the process of choosing and adding flavors can increase anticipation for the meal.

Nutrient-Dense Foods and Their Benefits

Focusing on nutrient-dense foods is crucial for seniors, who need to get the most nutritional value out of every bite. Foods like lean meats, fish, whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are packed with essential nutrients. 

For example, salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart and brain health, while spinach provides iron and folate.

Incorporating a variety of these foods can ensure a balanced intake of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients essential for maintaining health. Nutrient-dense foods also tend to be more satisfying, which can help seniors feel fuller and more nourished, even with smaller meal portions.

The Importance of Appealing Food Presentation

The visual appeal of food plays a significant role in stimulating appetite. Attractive, colorful food presentations can entice seniors to eat, especially when their appetite is low. Arranging food in a visually appealing manner, using garnishes, and ensuring a variety of colors can make a significant difference. For instance, a colorful salad with a variety of vegetables, nuts, and a sprinkle of cheese is more inviting than a plain bowl of greens.

The presentation can be tailored to individual preferences and needs. For seniors with visual impairments, contrasting colors can help them distinguish different foods on their plate. For those with cognitive impairments, simple, uncluttered presentations can reduce confusion and make eating a more pleasant experience.

Lifestyle and Environmental Adjustments to Increase Appetite

Learning how to increase appetite in elderly is more than just the foods that are offered, it’s lifestyle and environmental factors too! Here are my other top tips that will increase their appetite.

Encouraging Social Eating

Social interactions during meals can significantly enhance appetite in the elderly. Eating with family, friends, or in a community setting can make mealtime a more enjoyable and anticipated event. 

Organizing regular family dinners or participating in group meals at senior centers can provide a sense of occasion, encouraging seniors to eat more. Social eating also offers emotional support, making meals a pleasant and communal experience.

Seeing others eat can stimulate one’s own appetite. This is particularly beneficial in assisted living or care facilities, where communal dining can create a supportive and motivating environment for residents to enjoy their meals together.

The Role of Routine in Meal Times

Establishing a consistent mealtime routine can help regulate appetite. Having set times for meals and snacks creates a rhythm that the body can adapt to, potentially increasing hunger cues at these regular intervals. 

For seniors, especially those with cognitive impairments like dementia, a predictable routine can be comforting and reduce anxiety around meal times.

A routine doesn’t mean meals have to be monotonous. It’s about creating a reliable structure that can be flexible in terms of menu choices, ensuring that meal times are both consistent and varied.

Using Finger Foods and Drinkable Meals

Finger foods and drinkable meals can be excellent options for seniors with dexterity or swallowing issues. Easy-to-handle foods like cheese cubes, cut fruits, or small sandwiches can make eating less challenging and more enjoyable. These options allow seniors to eat independently, preserving their dignity and encouraging appetite.

Drinkable meals, like smoothies or nutrient-rich shakes, offer a convenient way to consume essential nutrients. They can be especially useful for those who find chewing difficult or have a reduced appetite for solid foods. These meals should be well-balanced, incorporating a variety of ingredients to ensure adequate nutrition.

If you’re looking for an extensive and easy to follow list of finger foods, I have a great list right here!

Addressing Dry Mouth Issues

Dry mouth, a common issue among the elderly, can significantly impact appetite and the ability to eat. Encouraging regular hydration, reducing caffeine intake, and avoiding tobacco can help alleviate dry mouth symptoms. Using saliva substitutes or mouthwashes designed for dry mouth can provide relief.

A Registered Dietitian and work with the Doctor to determine if medications contribute to dry mouth and if adjustments are needed. Simple measures like keeping water accessible during meals and encouraging small sips can also make eating more comfortable.

Physical Activity and Appetite in the Elderly

Exercise Types Beneficial for Seniors

Engaging in regular physical activity is crucial for seniors, not only for overall health but also for stimulating appetite. Low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, or gentle yoga are ideal, as they are easier on the joints. These activities help in maintaining muscle mass, improving circulation, and enhancing mood, all of which can positively influence appetite.

Strength training, even with light weights or resistance bands, is also beneficial. It aids in building muscle, boosting metabolism, and consequently, can increase hunger. Tailoring exercise to individual abilities and interests is key to maintaining consistency and enjoyment in physical activity.

The Relationship Between Physical Activity and Appetite

Exercise stimulates appetite by increasing metabolism and the body’s energy needs. After physical activity, the body often signals the need to replenish energy, naturally enhancing hunger cues. Regular exercise can improve digestive function and regulate bodily systems, further contributing to a healthier appetite.

For seniors, even short periods of physical activity can make a noticeable difference in their desire to eat. Encouraging daily, manageable exercises can therefore be a simple yet effective strategy to help boost their appetite.

Medical and Herbal Remedies for Appetite Stimulation

When to Consider Appetite Stimulants

Appetite stimulants can be considered when dietary and lifestyle adjustments are not enough to address significant appetite loss in the elderly. These stimulants, often prescribed by Doctors, can be particularly useful for individuals with chronic conditions or those undergoing treatments that severely reduce hunger. 

It’s crucial to consult with a doctor before starting any appetite stimulant, as they need to be carefully balanced with existing medications and health conditions.

Herbal remedies can also play a role in stimulating appetite. Natural options like ginger, known for its digestive benefits, or fenugreek, which is believed to enhance flavor perception, can be gentle alternatives. 

But it’s important to approach herbal remedies with caution, especially in seniors with multiple medications, as they can interact with prescribed drugs. Consulting with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian is advisable when considering these options.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to increase appetite in elderly is critical to maintaining the health of elderly people. Understanding the common causes, from medications and chronic illnesses to changes in taste and social factors, is the first step.

Implementing practical dietary strategies, such as serving smaller, more frequent meals, enhancing flavors with herbs and spices, focusing on nutrient-dense foods, and ensuring appealing food presentation, can make a significant difference.

Lifestyle and environmental adjustments, including fostering social eating environments, establishing routine meal times, and offering easy-to-eat finger foods and drinkable meals, play a crucial role. The importance of physical activity in stimulating appetite cannot be overlooked, with exercises tailored to senior capabilities offering multiple benefits.

Ultimately, the goal is to not only nourish the body but also to bring joy and satisfaction to the elderly through food, enhancing their overall quality of life. By understanding and addressing the unique challenges they face in maintaining a healthy appetite, caregivers and healthcare providers can significantly contribute to the well-being of our senior population.

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Michelle saari dietitian
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Michelle Saari is a Registered Dietitian based in Canada. She has a Master's Degree in Human Nutritional Sciences and is a passionate advocate for spreading easy to understand, reliable, and trustworthy nutrition information. She is currently a full time online entrepreneur with two nutrition focused websites.

3 thoughts on “How to Increase Appetite in Elderly!”

  1. Eating hints for families dealing with a person with dementia that will not eat .
    Long term covid taste issues hints for eating I cannot seem to find much evidence based practice
    Thanks

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