Anorexia (Loss of Appetite)

Written by Joseph Pritchard | Published on September 11, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 11, 2013

What Is Anorexia?

Anorexia is the abnormal loss of appetite for food. It can be a symptom of diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and some neurological conditions. Without treatment, anorexia and malnutrition can hinder the treatment of underlying conditions and lead to serious complications.

(Excessive weight loss caused by obsessive worry about body weight is called anorexia nervosa.)

Types of Anorexia

Anorexia and Cancer

Anorexia affects 15 to 25 percent of cancer patients (National Cancer Institute, 2011). Anorexia is especially prevalent in the advanced stages of metastatic cancer. Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other medications often worsen anorexia. These therapies can cause nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, and mouth sores, which may decrease a patient’s desire to eat. 

Cancer surgeries can also lead to anorexia. In cases where the cancer is affecting internal organs, surgeons may have to operate on areas of the digestive system. Patients may develop anorexia if there is significant damage to digestive organs during surgery.

Cancer patients commonly suffer from pain and depression. These are also causes of anorexia (Florida Cancer Specialists).

Anorexia and Alzheimer’s Disease

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, a loss of appetite often becomes apparent. The primary caregiver may notice that the patient does not eat as much or refuses to eat at all. Possible causes of a poor appetite include: 

  • inability to recognize food
  • poorly fitting dentures
  • certain medications
  • lack of physical activity
  • diminished sense of smell and taste (Alzheimer’s Association)

Anorexia and Parkinson’s Disease

Patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease may develop anorexia. Some patients experience severe depression, which often interferes with the maintenance of a healthy appetite.

Anorexia is also a side effect of some conventional medications used to treat Parkinson’s (Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, 2007). Levodopa, dopamine, and other medications may also cause nausea, which can further limit the desire to eat.

Emergency Issues

Cachexia

Anorexia is linked to the development a progressive wasting syndrome called cachexia. Cachexia causes weakness and a drastic loss of body mass, fat, and muscle tissue. Twenty to 40 percent of cancer patients die from cachexia (National Cancer Institute, 2011).

Cancer patients suffering from anorexia, weakness, and a significant decrease in body weight should consult a physician immediately.

Protein-Calorie Malnutrition (PCM)

Protein supplies the building blocks for muscle and many other tissues, while calories provide energy. Patients who suffer from anorexia are unable to consume enough protein and calories to meet their bodies’ requirements. These patients will develop a specific form of malnutrition called protein-calorie malnutrition, or PCM.

Untreated PCM can be fatal. Notify a medical professional if you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing PCM.

How Is Anorexia Treated?

A doctor will often attempt to treat the condition that is causing the anorexia. He or she will focus on healing mouth sores or relieving pain, for example. Alleviating depression can also help improve appetite.

A doctor may also reduce or adjust medications that might interfere with a patient’s appetite. And medications that either stimulate appetite or help food move through the intestines may also be prescribed.

In severe cases, a nasogastric tube may be required. This tube passes through the nose and into the stomach. The tube allows medical staff to deliver food directly to the patient’s digestive tract. 

A doctor may also refer a patient to a registered dietician, who will provide advice on meal planning and scheduling. A dietician can make sure the patient is receiving the necessary nutrients.

Home Care

Most home care options for the treatment of anorexia revolve around setting a strict eating schedule (Florida Cancer Specialists, 2013). Recommended tactics include:

  • Eat more frequently. Schedule five or six small meals a day.
  • Set times of the day when you are normally hungry. Eat at those times even if you do not feel particularly hungry.
  • Eat healthy high-calorie foods.
  • Eat protein-rich foods.
  • Drink nutritious fluids (such as milk or juice) between meals instead of during meals. Drinking too much during a meal can make you feel full too quickly.
  • Ask a family member or caregiver to cook for you and help you with grocery shopping.
  • Take a 15- or 20-minute walk about an hour before eating. Light exercise helps stimulate appetite. (Always consult your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.)

For caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients, recommended tactics include (Alzheimer’s Association):

  • Avoid distractions, such as the television, while serving meals.
  • Keep the table simple. Place only the food and utensils on the table.
  • Make sure the food is at the right temperature.
  • Serve only one or two dishes at a time.
  • Allow the patient ample time to eat.
  • Family members or caregivers should eat at the same time as the patient. 
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