5 Things That Can Cause Poor Appetite In Seniors

Plate and fork with orange peppers.

Having less appetite as a person ages can be normal. Food may not be as appealing, and the body needs fewer calories.

Decreased appetite can be abnormal though if it begins suddenly, if it leads to rapid weight loss, if it causes or if it causes other health problems. A sudden and unusual change in eating habits could be a sign of an underlying issue, such as dental problems or declining cognition (forgetting when the last meal was eaten or not recognizing hunger pains.

An abrupt change in a person's eating habits should be brought to the attention of a doctor. However, there may be a non-health related reason for low appetite too. Here are five reasons why a senior may be eating less:

1. Decreased Sensory Perception (Taste, Sight, Smell) 

When the senses are no longer acute (either from age or medication) food may no longer seem appealing. An elder may not be able to smell the food cooking, see the pretty colors, or taste all the flavors.

This often leads to the overuse of salt and sugar to make food palatable. Whereas you can't fix sensory perceptions, you can monitor the use of salt, and instead season food with robust herbs such as rosemary that can be easily tasted.

Other flavorings such as lemon or lime might help appease the craving for salt.

2. Decreased Metabolism

If seniors are mostly sedentary, their bodies may simply not send hunger cues as usual. The elderly may eat smaller and smaller meals, or skip meals, until they have difficulty eating a normal-sized portion.

Helping seniors get out and get active can boost metabolism. As they engage in enjoyable activities, they can build an appetite. At the same time, serve small meals and snacks more often throughout the day.

If portion size is overwhelming to an elder, they may enjoy "grazing" on small items from a snack tray. There are lots of healthy options that can be placed on a tray, such as whole-grain crackers, nuts, dried fruits and vegetables.

Other foods can be assembled in small containers and placed in the fridge at eye-level, where they are are easy-to-access. (cubed cheeses, sliced fresh veggies, fruits, small strips or cubes of lean meat.) This can help the senior who only grabs junk foods because they don't want the fuss of preparing a full meal.

3. Loneliness

Some people enjoy eating alone. Some seniors however may feel that it is true much trouble to prepare and eat a meal by themselves.Those who have lost a spouse or who rarely have guests may find mealtimes more sad than pleasurable.

If loneliness is leading to food apathy, it may help for a person to eat a few meals a week in a social setting. Eating with a friend, a relative, or with a group of people (such as classmates) might perk up the appetite. In turn, it could lead to more enjoyment of meals at home.

4. Low-Income 

Poverty is a real issue for many seniors, and some are trying to pay an entire month's expenses with only a few hundred dollars. For this reason, they may decide to eliminate their need for groceries by not eating, or by only buying a few of the cheapest items that won't spoil.

If you suspect money issues to be behind a poor diet, you can recommend community programs, or arrange for care baskets or homecooked meals to be delivered.

5. Change of Food Preference

An often overlooked reason for poor appetite can be a simple change in food likes and dislikes. This can happen when relatives are friends are helping with food shopping and preparation. They continue to buy what the person has always enjoyed, but the senior no longer cares for the taste.

Just changing up the cuisine could help! Add some new dishes and flavorings. Have a senior help create a master list of foods they now enjoy out of each food group. (they may even like stuff now that they used to hate.)

There are plenty of alternatives to every food choice, and plenty of ways to pique a poor appetite before you resort to medication.