5 Ways to Increase Appetite in Older Adults

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN, IFMCPLifestyle
Multigenerational family eating together

Lack of appetite is a primary cause for weight loss in older adults, especially those who are dealing with cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. The lack of appetite is caused by a number of physiological changes that occur in old age as well as side effects to medications, and social isolation, all of which can lead to unintended weight loss. Excess weight loss is a serious issue in older adults, and can contribute to a variety of health issues and comorbidities, up to and including increased mortality (1). Trying to get an elderly loved one to eat can be a challenge for caregivers, especially when trying to follow a diet that promotes brain health. While the initial urge may be to offer highly palatable sugary and processed foods such as milkshakes, muffins, cakes, and fried foods, these foods can contribute to the underlying disease processes, thus exacerbating the problem. A better alternative is to strive to increase appetite naturally while serving foods that both promote brain health and food intake. Here are 5 tips for increasing appetite in older adults. 

1. Get them involved in the cooking process 

Include your loved one in the preparation of the meal and cooking process. Depending on the ability of the individual, this can mean actually having them assist you in the cooking process (chopping veggies, stirring the pot, whisking the dressing, etc.) or if you are preparing foods for someone who is unable to do those tasks, simply get them in the kitchen with you and have them sit or stand nearby while you prepare the meal. The reason this is helpful is because the aroma of the foods while they cook and the sight of the foods can help stimulate digestive secretions (2). Thus, we can start the digestive process and further stimulate appetite before the meal even begins. 

Beyond that, taking a more active role in the food preparation process can prompt the individual to specify their food preferences while the meal is made, further increasing the likelihood that they will consume a full portion. When you’re in the kitchen, talk about the meal- discuss the type of cuisine, the cooking methods, the ingredients, etc., which will further involve the individual in the cooking process. 

2. Increase use of herbs and spices

The senses of taste and smell decrease as we age, which contributes to lack of appetite. Compensating for this loss of taste and smell with flavor enhanced foods can increase appetite and increase food consumption (2). While many people turn to salt to amp up the flavor of foods, doing so can be unintentionally harmful as added sodium can in some cases contribute to hypertension. Herbs and spices are a natural and exceptionally nutritious way to increase the flavor of foods. They are rich in phytonutrients that support cognitive health and they can also completely change and elevate the flavor of foods. 

Choose from either fresh or dried herbs, but if you use dried herbs, make sure they’re no older than about 6 months because they lose flavor and nutrients as they age. Also, keep dried herbs in airtight containers to further extend their shelf life. 

Feel free to use a heavy hand when flavoring foods with herbs and spices. Use herbs and spices like rosemary, mint, oregano, thyme, cilantro, nutmeg, clove, and cumin because their potent aroma can stimulate appetite. 

3. Keep portion sizes small, while maximizing nutrient density

Large portions can feel overwhelming, causing an individual with a poor appetite to turn off completely. Keep the portion size small to avoid overwhelm and maximize the nutrient density by adding meal components that are both calorie dense and rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. 

For example, add sauces and toppings rich in healthy fat to foods like tahini, pesto, guacamole, nut butters, and olive tapenade. Sprinkle easy to eat seeds like hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and chia seeds onto meals. Include a good source of protein with meals like fatty fish or eggs. 

4. Avoid liquids during mealtimes

Drinking liquids during meals can fill the stomach and reduce feelings of hunger. Avoid drinking liquids during or directly before meals to maximize hunger and increase food consumed. Instead, encourage fluid intake between meals to make sure the individual stays well hydrated, but avoids “filling up” on liquids. 

5. Make mealtimes social

Make mealtimes social by encouraging the whole family to eat together. Loneliness is a risk factor for reduced food intake and lack of appetite (4). Feeling socially isolated, as many older adults with cognitive decline do, is associated with nutritional insufficiencies from poor food intake (5). Encouraging the whole family to eat together can help prevent social isolation and create a welcoming environment that will promote nutritional intake and conversation. 

If you need additional help increasing appetite and maintaining weight, you may need personalized support from a dietitian. Contact us today to set up an appointment. 


References:

  1. Pilgrim, A. L., et al. (2015). https://doi.org/10.7748/nop.27.5.29.e697
  2. Feldman, M., et al (1986). https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-5085(86)90943-1
  3. Schiffman, S., et al. (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601026
  4. Ramic, E., et al. (2011). PMID: 21585182
  5. Walker, D., et al. (1991). PMID: 1997551