The term “appetite” is most commonly used to refer to the desire to eat food. There are a number of things that might contribute to a decrease in appetite, including developmental stages or medical conditions. A decrease in appetite can lead to a decrease in eating.

Your doctor may recommend an appetite stimulant if your appetite has decreased to the point where you’re not eating enough nutrients.

Appetite stimulants are medications that can increase appetite. In some cases, you can also stimulate appetite with lifestyle changes.

Some of the most common reasons for a decrease in appetite include:

  • mental health conditions, such as depression
  • cancer and its treatments
  • substance use
  • some medications, such as amphetamines

Some causes are specific to certain populations, such as very young children or older adults.

Some causes of poor food intake or decreased appetite in older adults may include:

Some vitamins, minerals, and herbs may be effective in stimulating appetite.

However, if you’ve noticed a decrease in appetite for yourself or someone you care about, it’s best to avoid self-diagnosing and self-treating and talk with a doctor or other healthcare professional first.

There are many causes for a decreased appetite, and a healthcare professional is best equipped to look at issues such as prescription side effects, development, and underlying conditions.

A few supplements a healthcare professional may encourage you to try include:

Zinc

A zinc deficiency can cause loss of appetite and weight loss, among other issues. It has been shown to be a key reason some older adults have lowered appetites.

If your doctor gives you a zinc deficiency diagnosis, they may instruct you to take a zinc supplement.

Thiamine

A deficiency in thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, can also decrease appetite in older adults.

If you’re diagnosed with vitamin B1 deficiency, you may be advised to take vitamin B1 supplements.

Fish oil

Fish oil may stimulate appetite.

Fish oil is typically considered safe for any adult who doesn’t have allergies to fish. However, the evidence around using fish oil as an appetite stimulant is slim.

Talk with your doctor about the benefits of fish oil supplementation, and whether they think it might help your specific circumstances.

There are a few medications that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as appetite stimulants. These medications are:

Dronabinol (Marinol)

Dronabinol is a cannabinoid medication. This means it acts on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Dronabinol helps decrease nausea in people with cancer and stimulates appetite in people with HIV.

A doctor can help determine whether this medication would be helpful and safe for you.

Megestrol (Megace)

Megestrol is a synthetic progestin. It stimulates appetite and is used to treat anorexia or cachexia. Cachexia is extreme weight loss related to chronic conditions.

It can be prescribed to children. It has potential hormonal side effects and can cause blood clots.

Oxandrolone (Oxandrin)

Oxandrolone is a synthetic testosterone derivative. It promotes weight gain similarly to anabolic steroids or naturally occurring testosterone in the body. It’s often prescribed following:

  • severe trauma
  • infections
  • surgery

While oxandrolone is used more for weight gain and not appetite stimulation directly, it may result in an increased appetite.

Oxandrolone can cause changes to cholesterol. This may increase the risk of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Off-label medications

There are other classes of medications often used as appetite stimulants, but these haven’t been FDA approved for this use. These medications include:

It’s never advisable to self-medicate. Your doctor is the only one who should make the decision to treat your decreased appetite with off-label medications, or medications that have been approved by the FDA.

There are a number of ways to help increase your appetite besides taking medications or supplements. These lifestyle changes include:

  • Make mealtimes more enjoyable. Try eating together with friends and family, or while watching a favorite show. You may eat more if you’re having a good time during your meal.
  • Eat foods you enjoy, and change up your menu. Some people find keeping a food diary helpful in tracking their progress and making sure they’re eating enough calories.
  • Make time for meals. If eating three full meals per day feels overwhelming, you could try splitting your food into five or six smaller meals each day. When trying to increase your appetite, it’s important not to skip meals.
  • Consider drinking some of your calories. Calorie-containing beverages, such as protein shakes and fruit smoothies, can help you meet your daily calorie requirements. Just make sure to reach for nutritious beverages, and skip filling up on drinks with empty calories, like soda.

Older adults may have specific concerns regarding decreased appetite. Often, there may be an underlying condition or disease that affects food intake. It’s very important to follow your doctor’s care plan to help manage any health conditions you may have.

Proper management of dental care, bowel regularity, and good hygiene can positively affect appetite in older adults.

If you have trouble obtaining or preparing food, consider grocery delivery services. There are also services that deliver meal ingredients with recipes, or that deliver fully prepared meals.

The social aspect of eating is more likely to change with age. Eating with other people has a substantial impact on appetite and the amount of food eaten. Being able to eat meals with friends or family, or in a social environment such as a care facility cafeteria rather than in your private room, may positively affect appetite.

If you’re living in a community or nursing care facility and have difficulty with limited food choices, or you dislike the food flavors, ask if there are cafeteria-style dining options rather than a prefilled tray. You can also ask the facility management if it’s possible to request your favorite foods.

Remembering to eat may be a concern for some older adults. It may be helpful to set an alarm for mealtimes or post a meal schedule on the wall.

Infants, toddlers, and very young children can have their own set of eating challenges.

If you’re concerned that your child isn’t eating enough or is losing weight, it’s very important to work with your child’s doctor. They can help ensure that there’s not an underlying cause, and that your child is getting the necessary nutrients for healthy growth.

Daily calorie requirements vary based on a number of factors, such as:

  • sex
  • activity level
  • age

Below is a truncated table for estimated calorie needs per day by age, sex, and physical activity level.

If you’re wondering about the approximate amount of calories that are optimal for your specific circumstances, talk with a doctor or nutritionist.

Age (male)Sedentary (male)Moderately active (male)Active (male)Age (female)Sedentary (female)Moderately active (female)Active (female)
2 years1,0001,0001,0002 years1,0001,0001,000
6 years1,4001,6001,8006 years1,2001,4001,600
10 years1,6001,8002,20010 years1,4001,8002,000
16 years2,4002,8003,20016 years1,8002,0002,400
21–25 years2,4002,8003,00021–25 years2,0002,2002,400
36–40 years2,4002,6002,8003640 years1,8002,0002,200
51–55 years2,2002,4002,8005155 years1,6001,8002,200
61–65 years2,0002,4002,6006165 years1,6001,8002,000
71–75 years2,0002,2002,60071–75 years1,6001,8002,000

It’s important to contact a doctor if you:

  • have been experiencing unexplained low appetite for an extended period of time
  • are losing weight unintentionally
  • have symptoms of nutrient deficiencies, such as fatigue, hair loss, weakness, dizziness, or decreased muscle mass
  • have other symptoms that concern you

A doctor will be able to help rule out any mental or physical health conditions that may be causing your decreased appetite.

There are a number of factors that can cause decreased appetite. These factors vary with age and underlying health conditions. If left untreated, low appetite can result in malnourishment and other more serious health issues.

It’s possible to increase appetite with appetite stimulant medications and lifestyle changes. Supplements may also help, but more research has to be done in that area.

The most effective treatment will depend upon the underlying cause of low appetite. It’s important to work with a doctor or other healthcare professional to determine the best plan for you.