A loss of appetite for a senior does not necessarily mean something is wrong. But when the loss of appetite begins to affect the health of the senior, it needs to be addressed–a lack of nutrition can have serious consequences for older adults. In fact, some experts believe that it is more dangerous for a senior to be underweight than overweight.

There are many reasons seniors stop eating or lose interest in food, including:

  • Slowing metabolism
  • Lower activity levels
  • Side effects from medications
  • Depression
  • Alcoholism
  • Illness
  • Salivary gland problems
  • Dehydration
  • Dental issues that make chewing difficult
  • Problems swallowing
  • Dry mouth from medications
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Aversion to food smells
  • Loss of the sense of smell
  • Reduction in the ability to taste
  • Inability to shop for and/or prepare food
  • Inability to feed oneself

Seniors with dementia may forget to eat, or believe they have just eaten when they have not.

To further complicate the issue, a study revealed that nearly 50 percent of senior adults who were overweight or obese were also malnourished.

There are several increased health risks for malnourished seniors:

  • Frailty
  • More frequent falls
  • Longer hospital stays
  • Osteoporosis (bone loss)
  • Osteomalacia (softening and deformation of bones)
  • Hip fractures
  • Muscle weakness and muscle loss
  • Weakened immune system
  • Impaired wound healing
  • Mortality

What to Look For

Signs that a senior may have become malnourished include unexplained weight loss or weight gain, or lethargy. Family members or caregivers should watch the senior during mealtimes to take note of eating habits, as well as monitor their weight.

First Step: Talk to a Physician

Seniors should consult with their physicians to assess medical conditions that may be contributing to a loss of appetite. During that consultation, the physician may also recommend a certain daily caloric intake, change medications that may be affecting their appetite, and discuss vitamins or supplements that may help.

A physician can also make nutritional recommendations based upon chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.

Tips to Encourage Healthy Eating

As a caregiver or adult child, you need to encourage your senior loved ones to eat well. While seniors need to be aware of the dangers of malnutrition, you should also emphasize the added mental and physical energy, as well as the better quality of life they will experience with proper nutrition.

Establish a regular eating schedule. Our bodies are accustomed to certain rhythms, including when we feel hungry.

When dealing with loss of appetite, it helps to plan ahead for meals rather than grabbing whatever foods are available. This allows time for better food selection. It may also be beneficial to establish a pattern of consuming six to eight smaller meals per day rather than three large ones. Therefore, it is advisable to eat meals and snacks at the same time each day whenever possible. It’s always a good idea to ask your doctor about the three large meals vs. the 6-8 smaller ones, if you’re unsure.

Overcome challenges. If obtaining or preparing food is difficult, consider using a grocery or meal delivery service. Make sure the senior’s dentures fit properly and that poor dental health is not making it difficult to chew. If needed, consider using adaptive eating utensils (specialized utensils that make eating easier for seniors with physical or developmental disabilities) enabling seniors to feed themselves more easily.

Make the eating environment pleasant. This can begin by making the meal preparation fun for the senior. Ask him or her to select menu items for the meal and help prepare them. Use favorite place settings and add background music. Also, encourage social interaction during mealtime. Eating alone in silence can be depressing and foster a lack of appetite. Invite friends over. Family members and caregivers should also schedule meals with senior parents. Food tastes better with good company and a pleasant atmosphere.

Keep healthy snacks on hand. Find things to eat that appeal to the senior. Keeping their favorite healthy snacks readily accessible makes it far more likely that they will be eaten.

Add sweet fruit to desserts, and spices, sauces, and herbs to other foods for more flavor. Some medications change the flavor of foods. If meat starts tasting different than it had been tasting, for example, considering a switch to other proteins like beans. Look for enhancements or substitutes that will make foods more appetizing.

As a caregiver or adult child, you can make trying new foods a fun process of discovery for your loved one.

Increase nutrient value instead of just food quantity. A huge helping of food in front of an appetite-suppressed senior may look more like a hurdle than an inviting dining experience. Try less intimidating, smaller portions of healthy, nutrient-rich food. Malnutrition is a condition caused by not getting the right amount of nutrients that are required for health.

Provide incentives. Family members might consider offering a reward to their senior loved one in return for eating well. Take them on a shopping trip, buy them a gift card, or treat them to a good meal!

Encourage exercise. As we age, we lose lean muscle mass (called sarcopenia). Exercise–particularly strengthening exercise–can slow the loss of lean muscle. This not only protects seniors from injuries and enhances their physical capabilities, but also serves to increase their appetite. Losing weight without gaining or maintaining muscle can be disabling in terms of energy and mobility loss, and can also pose an increased risk for injury.

(Consult with a physician before starting an exercise program.)

Deal with dry mouth. Try a mouth rinse or chewing sugarless gum before a meal to moisten the palate.

Overcome swallowing difficulties. Smoothies, soups, and nutritional drinks can help those who have trouble chewing or swallowing solid foods. Also, a speech therapist can help with swallowing challenges.

Talk to a registered dietitian for more ideas and suggestions. As we age, our dietary choices and requirements change. A registered dietitian can be a great resource for seniors by creating customized meal plans based on food preferences and medical conditions.

Nutrition is key to seniors’ health. See more tips on our blog.