Supplements, Medications, and Lifestyle Changes to Help Stimulate Appetite

Medically reviewed by Suzanne Falck, MD on February 9, 2018Written by Megan Dix, RN, BSN on February 9, 2018

What are appetite stimulants?

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.

You may need an appetite stimulant if your appetite has decreased to the point where you aren’t eating enough nutrients. Appetite stimulants are medications that can increase appetite. In some cases, you can also stimulate appetite with lifestyle changes.

What causes a decrease in appetite?

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

Some causes are specific to certain populations, such as very young children or older adults. In infants and toddlers, causes of decreased appetite or poor food intake may include:

  • food allergies
  • familial stress
  • being forced to eat too much
  • not being exposed to a wide variety of foods and textures at a young age
  • excessive intake of milk or juice between meals
  • developmental desire for autonomy
  • early feeding difficulties, such as colic, frequent vomiting, or difficulty sucking
  • genetic predisposition
  • unstructured or highly variable mealtimes and practices
  • eating alone
  • delayed introduction of solids past 9 months old
  • familial conflict at mealtimes

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

  • dementia
  • depression
  • neurological or musculoskeletal disorders
  • lack of companionship or social atmosphere for eating
  • decreased sense of smell
  • decreased sense of taste
  • difficulty obtaining or preparing food
  • gastrointestinal changes
  • decreased energy expenditure
  • hormonal changes
  • medications that affect sense of taste, such as some antidepressants or anti-Parkinson’s medications
  • heart disease
  • respiratory diseases
  • poor dental health

Supplements to stimulate appetite

Vitamins, minerals, and herbs may be effective in stimulating appetite. In some cases, they may also be effective in treating vitamin and mineral deficiencies that are affecting appetite. Some of the supplements that may be helpful to add to your diet include:

Zinc

A zinc deficiency can cause taste and appetite changes. A zinc supplement or multivitamin containing zinc should be safe for most adults.

Consult a physician if you have questions and before giving supplements to young children.

Thiamine

A deficiency of thiamine, also known as vitamin B-1, can cause:

  • increased resting energy expenditure, or the rate you burn calories when resting
  • decreased appetite
  • weight loss

Thiamine should be safe for most adults. Consult a physician before giving supplements to young children.

Fish oil

Fish oil may stimulate appetite. It may also improve digestion and reduce feelings of bloating or fullness that can keep you from eating.

Fish oil is typically considered safe for any adult who doesn’t have allergies to fish. It’s important to speak with a doctor before giving supplements to very young children.

Drug therapies to stimulate appetite

There are three medications that are approved by the U.S. 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 and stimulate appetite. It’s used in people experiencing decreased appetite due to HIV and chemotherapy.

It isn’t clear if it can be safely prescribed to children. A doctor can help determine if 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 stimulates appetite and promotes weight gain similarly to anabolic steroids or naturally occurring testosterone in the body. It’s often prescribed to assist with appetite and weight gain following:

  • severe trauma
  • infections
  • surgery

It 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:

Lifestyle changes to stimulate appetite

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

  • Exercise. Regular exercise can help increase hunger. This is because it increases your energy expenditure.
  • 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 that 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, fruit smoothies, milk, and juice, 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.
  • Eat less fiber. Eating more fiber may help your food digest faster and keep you from feeling as full. If you struggle with having enough appetite, a lower-fiber diet may help.

In the elderly

Elderly adults may have specific concerns regarding low appetite. Often there may be an underlying condition or disease that impacts food intake. It’s very important to follow your doctor’s care plan to help manage your medical conditions.

Proper management of dental care, bowel regularity, and basic 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.

In infants and toddlers

Infants, toddlers, and very young children can present 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 isn’t an underlying cause and that your child is getting the necessary nutrients for healthy growth.

A good guideline for portion sizing is 1 tablespoon of each food per year of a child’s life. More food may be given if the child wants it.

Some management strategies for children who aren’t eating enough or are very picky eaters are:

  • Work with a behavioral or occupational therapist.
  • Practice family behavior modification. Familial stress, unrealistic parental expectations, and threats, pressure, or bribes can have a negative impact on a child’s eating.
  • Offer smaller, frequent meals.
  • Offer a wide variety of foods and food textures at a young age, usually starting around 6 months.
  • Discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor.
  • Make mealtimes pleasant, enjoyable experiences. Ask your child questions about their day and tell them about yours. Even if they don’t yet have the vocabulary to participate in conversation, feeling included may make them more excited for mealtime.
  • Have regular family mealtimes. Eating together as a family whenever possible models positive eating behavior. It also provides a social environment that most children desire.
  • Don’t allow distractions, such as TV, phones, and toys, at the table.
  • Limit a toddler’s time at the table to about 20 minutes per meal.
  • Ensure your child is getting enough exercise and playtime.
  • Limit excessive snacking and drinking of milk or juice between meals.

Daily calorie requirements

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

  • sex
  • activity level
  • genetic makeup
  • resting metabolism
  • body type

Below is a general guideline for average calorie requirements by age group. The lower end of the range is for sedentary people, while the upper end of the range applies to active people.

Age groupDaily calorie requirements for femalesDaily calorie requirements for males
Toddlers (2-3)1,000 - 1,4001,000 - 1,400
Children (4-12)1,200 - 2,2001,400 - 2,400
Teenagers (13-18)1,600 - 2,4002,000 - 3,200
Young adults (18-40)1,800 - 2,2002,600 - 3,000
Adults (40-60)1,800 - 2,2002,200 - 2,600
Older adults (61+)1,600 - 2,0002,000 - 2,400

Seeking help

It’s important to see your doctor if you:

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

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

The takeaway

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 serious health issues.

It’s possible to increase appetite with appetite stimulant medications, supplements, and lifestyle changes. The most effective treatment will depend upon the underlying cause of low appetite. It’s important to work with your doctor to determine the best plan for you.

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