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Anorexia (Loss of Appetite)

Overview

Anorexia is a general loss of appetite or a loss of interest in food. When some people hear the word “anorexia,” they think of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. But there are differences between the two.

Anorexia nervosa doesn’t cause loss of appetite. People with anorexia nervosa purposely avoid food to prevent weight gain. People who suffer from anorexia (loss of appetite) unintentionally lose interest in food. Loss of appetite is often caused by an underlying medical condition.

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Causes

Causes of loss of appetite

Since anorexia is often a symptom of a medical problem, speak with your doctor if you notice a significant decrease in your appetite. Technically any medical issue can result in loss of appetite.

Common causes of loss of appetite can include the following:

Depression

During episodes of depression, a person may lose interest in food or forget to eat. This can lead to weight loss and malnourishment. The actual cause of loss of appetite is not known. Sometimes, people with depression can overeat.

Cancer

Advanced cancer can cause loss of appetite, so it’s not uncommon for people with end-stage cancer to decline food. As the disease progresses, the body of a person with end-stage cancer begins to conserve energy. Since their body is unable to use food and fluids properly, loss of appetite typically occurs as the end of life approaches. If you’re a caregiver, don’t be overly concerned if a loved one chooses not to eat, or only prefers liquids such as ice cream and milkshakes.

Side effects caused by some cancer treatments (radiation and chemotherapy) can also affect appetite. People who receive these treatments may lose their appetite if they experience nausea, difficulty swallowing, difficulty chewing, and mouth sores.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a liver infection that spreads from person to person through contact with infected blood. This infection is caused by the hepatitis C virus. If left untreated, it can cause liver damage. Advanced liver damage can cause nausea and vomiting, which affects appetite. If you experience loss of appetite, your doctor can order blood work to check for the hepatitis C virus. Other types of hepatitis can also cause loss of appetite in the same way.

Kidney failure

People with kidney failure will often have a condition called uremia, which means there is excess protein in the blood. This protein would normally be flushed out in the urine, however, the damaged kidneys are unable to filter it properly. Uremia can cause people with kidney failure to feel nauseated, and not want to eat. Sometimes food will taste different. Some will find that the foods they once enjoyed no longer appeal to them.

Heart failure

People with heart failure may also experience loss of appetite. This is because you have less blood flow to the digestive system, causing problems with digestion. This can make it uncomfortable and unappealing to eat.

HIV/AIDS

Loss of appetite is also a common symptom of HIV/AIDS. There are different reasons for loss of appetite with HIV and AIDS. Both can cause painful sores on the mouth and tongue. Because of pain, some people reduce their food intake or completely lose the desire to eat.

Nausea caused by AIDS and HIV can also affect appetite. Nausea can also be a side effect of a medication used to treat HIV and AIDS. Talk to your doctor if you develop nausea or loss of appetite after beginning treatment. Your doctor may prescribe a separate medication to help you cope with nausea.

Alzheimer’s disease

In addition to other symptoms, some people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) also experience loss of appetite. Loss of appetite in people with AD has several possible explanations. Some people with AD battle depression which causes them to lose interest in food. This disease can also make it difficult for people to communicate pain. As a result, those who experience oral pain or difficulty swallowing may lose interest in food.

Decreased appetite is also common with AD because the disease damages the hypothalamus, which is the area of the brain that regulates hunger and appetite. A change in appetite may start to develop years before a diagnosis, and become more apparent after a diagnosis.

Loss of appetite can also occur if a person with AD isn’t active or doesn’t burn enough calories throughout the day.

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Tips

Tips for getting proper nutrition

Anorexia or loss of appetite can cause complications such as unintentional weight loss and malnutrition. Although you may not feel hungry or want to eat, it’s still important to try to maintain a healthy weight and get good nutrition into your body. Here are some tips to practice throughout the day when your appetite is low:

  • Eat 5-6 small meals a day rather than 3 large meals that may fill you up too quickly.
  • Track the times during day when you feel most hungry.
  • Snack whenever you are hungry. Choose snacks that are high in calories and protein, such as dried fruits, yogurt, nuts and nut butters, cheeses, eggs, protein, granola bars, and pudding.
  • Eat in pleasant surroundings that make you feel comfortable.
  • Eat soft foods, like mashed potatoes or smoothies, if your loss of appetite is due to pain.
  • Keep your favorite snacks on hand so you can eat on the go.
  • Add spices or sauces to make food more appealing and higher in calories.
  • Drink liquids between meals so that they don’t fill you up while you are eating.
  • Meet with a dietitian to create a meal plan that works for you.
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Doctor

When to contact a doctor

The occasional loss of appetite isn’t a cause for concern. Call you doctor if anorexia causes significant weight loss or if you have signs of poor nutrition, such as:

  • physical weakness
  • headaches
  • dizziness

Poor nutrition makes it harder for your body to function properly. In addition, lack of food can also cause loss of muscle mass.

Since different illnesses can reduce appetite, your doctor may ask several questions regarding your current health. These can include questions such as:

  • Are you currently taking any medications for any conditions?
  • Have there been recent changes in your weight?
  • Is your loss of appetite a new or old symptom?
  • Are there any events in your life currently that are upsetting you?

Tests used to diagnose an underlying medical problem may include an imaging test (X-ray or MRI) which takes detailed pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests can check for inflammation and malignant cells. Your doctor may also order a blood test or a urine test to examine your liver and kidney function.

If you show signs of malnutrition, you may be admitted into the hospital and receive nutrients intravenously.

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Outlook

Outlook for anorexia

Overcoming anorexia or loss of appetite often involves treating the underlying cause. Your doctor may suggest working with a registered dietitian for advice on meal planning and proper nutrition. You can also talk to your doctor about taking an oral steroid to help stimulate your appetite.

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