It is normal for our appetites to change as we get older for several reasons, but whilst reduced appetite is a natural part of ageing, it’s still important to make sure that older people get sufficient nutrients.
Inadequate nutrient intake coupled with decreased mobility can lead to weight and muscle loss. This can be the start of a downward spiral as weight and muscle loss result in weakness, feeling tired and an inability to participate in daily activities, which in turn supresses appetites further.
Reasons for a loss in appetite
If you’re concerned about a loved one not eating enough and losing weight, of course it’s critical to rule out any underlying health problems with their doctor first. Discounting health or medication issues causing a reduced appetite here are other reasons why an older person may not want to eat:
A lower metabolic rate and lessened physical activity means seniors need fewer calories, still it’s a good idea to encourage regular exercise so that they can ‘work up’ an appetite. Keeping them active has other health benefits too in lifting their mood and prolonging their independence.
Depression is a known appetite suppressor and according to Public Health England it affects one in five older people living in their own homes. A major contributory factor for depression is loneliness. Many older adults don’t like mealtimes because they have nobody to eat with and this intensifies their feelings of isolation.
Lack of energy and incentive to cook – older people often feel reluctant to make a meal for one and will be more likely to skip meals because they can’t muster the strength and so the negative cycle begins. Preparing their own meals may become increasingly difficult.
Altering taste buds - changes to the sense of smell and taste can affect the enjoyment of food. As people age their taste buds can become less able to detect flavours, so food they used to love may become bland and unappetising to them. Sometimes people develop a sensitivity to the smell of certain foods that can make them feel nauseated or unable to eat.
Dehydration, especially in hot weather can cause loss of appetite. Many older adults don’t get enough fluids and become dehydrated more easily because of age-related changes or medications they’re taking.
Lack of routine and forgetting to eat – if there’s no set pattern in place meals can be easily missed and the body doesn’t receive signals that it’s time to eat.
What can you do to help?
It is important for older people to consume adequate calories and protein to help maintain energy and muscle mass. The optimum amount of calories and protein help their bodies fight infection and maintain energy levels, so they can stay active.
There are a few practical things you can do to help stimulate their appetite and increase their calorie intake:
Eat together whenever you can as the social element of nourishment is really important and helps us all to feel human, included and cared for. For people of any age, just the prospect of eating alone can reduce appetite. Eating well isn't always just about the nutrients, it's about the environment that we eat in; eating in company has a hugely positive effect on health and wellbeing. Even meal delivery services can help as they offer the prospect of social interaction, something many older people lack and crave.
Don’t rush to increase portion size as this can be off-putting, intimidating even, and serve to make the matter worse. Instead look to increase nutrient dense food by adding healthy extra calories such as: nuts, peanut butter, dried fruits, cheese, granola bars and avocados. Add gravy, cream or cheese sauces to meats and oils or butter to salad and cooked vegetables.
Make sure they eat protein with each meal and snack to help maintain muscle mass. Stock their cupboards and fridge with foods high in protein such as: eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, meat, poultry, fish, dried peas and beans.
Set an alarm to remind them to eat and to help trigger regular hunger cues. Our bodies tend to thrive off regularity, as do our hunger and thirst signals, so when we stray from our usual patterns, so does our appetite. Reintroducing set meal times can help to boost their appetite.
If side effects to medications that they are taking makes them feel nauseous suggest they eat dry food in the morning, such as toast or crackers. Avoid them taking medications on an empty stomach (unless instructed otherwise by their GP) and encourage them to eat slowly and to sit up for at least 30 minutes after food.
Encourage them to stay hydrated by taking sips of water (or diluted fruit juice) throughout the day. One of the main reasons for loss of appetite is dehydration as without fluids, the body cannot digest food.
Keep them moving and as physically active as possible to help spark off hunger pangs.
If their old food favourites no longer hold any interest, then try introducing them to an array of different cuisines to stimulate their senses. Go shopping for a new cook book together and inspire them to pick a new recipe to try out. We often eat with our eyes first, so make meals look colourful and visually appealing.