Written by Rhiannon Stone, Registered Dietitian
Appetite and hunger are words that are often thrown around in the social media world as things we ‘must’ control in order to lead a balanced lifestyle. We are force fed with tips and tricks to curb our hunger and control our appetite. But what about those people who struggle with appetite and hunger? And struggle to gain weight?
Appetite is defined as a natural desire to satisfy a bodily need, especially for food. Physical hunger is defined as the body’s response to a lack of food resulting in a desire to eat. Together, appetite and hunger remind us to supply our body with the energy it needs to survive. But, when these signals are reduced, we can be left feeling fatigued, weak and unable to complete our day-to-day activities.
What causes a reduced appetite?
Reduced appetite can be caused by a range of factors including but not limited to:
Engaging in disordered eating or under-eating
Medical conditions or treatment
Anxiety and/or depression
GI upset such as constipation and/or diarrhoea
Are there different types of hunger?
To make things more interesting, hunger can be divided into different types, all initiating unique emotional and physical reactions. These include:
Physical/Stomach Hunger: We all know that dull gurgle in our stomach that can fire away prior to a meal time or you might experience nausea, a headache, stomach pain, feel dizzy or shaky. These are the body’s physical responses to notify us it requires refueling.
Mouth Hunger: Or cravings, is the response we have when we crave the pleasure of food, rather than to eat for fuel. Cravings can also be a way for our body to tell us it needs a quick source of energy if we are under-eating which is a primitive response to famine.
Heart/Head Hunger: This type of hunger is a response to our emotions and how we’re feeling mentally rather than physically. This could be eating due to boredom, stress, anxiety or sadness. It could also be a learned behaviour such as avoiding or choosing foods based on an event or something we have seen in the media.
Although the varying types of hunger and the influences on reduced appetite may affect our desire to consume food, we need to keep in mind that food provides our bodies with the nutrition to maintain weight and keep us energised and strong. Think of food like the fuel we put in our car. If there is no fuel, there is nothing powering us to continue through our day!
How can I manage to eat more when I don't have an appetite?
Have small and frequent meals and snacks rather than large ones. Just the sight of a large meal can sometimes be completely overwhelming and off-putting. Rather than attempting to eat large meals, try eating 6-8 small meals/snacks during the day.
Schedule your meals & snacks, don’t wait for hunger cues. Whether it is setting an alarm on your phone or penciling it into your daily planner, designate specific times to remind yourself to eat throughout the day. Aim to eat something every 2-3 waking hours. Sometimes you might need to eat even when you aren’t hungry!
Make every mouthful count. Following a high energy and high protein diet will ensure that you maximise the energy that your body is receiving.
Energy: you can add more energy to your food by using extra fats and oils both in cooking and drizzled on after, using nut butters, full fat dairy, avocado, cream and spreads such as jam and Nutella
Protein: adding high protein foods like meat, fish, chicken, eggs, dairy/alternatives (cheese, milk, yoghurt), beans/legumes, nuts/seeds and tofu/ tempeh to every meal and snack.
Having adequate energy and protein is crucial to maintaining weight and strength, aim to consume them first from your plate before becoming too full. Here are some tips on how to make your meals and snacks higher in energy and protein:
High Protein Milk Recipe: for every 1 cup (250ml) of milk, add 1-2 heaped tablespoons of milk powder (full cream or skim) to create a high protein and higher energy milk. You can use this on cereal, for cooking, in desserts or wherever you would normally use milk. You can also make up 1L by adding 4-8 heaped tablespoons and keeping this in the fridge just like you would normal milk
Plan ahead and meal prep. Have your favourite pre-prepared snacks and meals ready. Good options include crackers and cheese/dip, frozen meals, soups, pre-prepared smoothies or high energy drinks, yoghurt, nuts and dairy desserts. This can also reduce anxiety about knowing what to eat and when.
Enjoy meals with family and friends. Eating socially in a relaxed environment can often make the food seem more appealing whilst encouraging you to eat more regularly.
Take notice of your symptoms. If digestive concerns such as bloating, pain, reflux or constipation/diarrhoea are contributing to fullness let your GP or Dietitian know so that they can help. It is common to experience some digestive concerns, especially if you were undereating or trying to gain weight as your gut can be weak. Try using distraction after meals like reading, speaking to a loved one, painting, crossword or journaling. A hot water bottle, cup of tea or gentle walk after a meal can also help.
If these initial strategies are not successful and weight loss or reduced appetite continues, high energy drinks or Oral Nutrition Supplements (ONS) can be considered. Typically, ONS are ready-made protein and energy packed products that assist in achieving our daily nutrition requirements. As well as this, many include essential vitamins and minerals that may not be consumed whilst our appetite is poor. There are a wide range of supplement styles including juices, yoghurts, milks, puddings and powders. If ONS is something you would like to consider, reach out to a Dietitian who can discuss the best treatment for you!
Written by Rhiannon Stone
Rhiannon is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD) based in Brisbane, Australia. She is passionate about creating a positive food culture and educating the public on how to nourish their mind and body through good nutrition. Make sure to follow her on instagram at @rhiset_dietetics where she posts informative content, tips and resources.
Talia is a registered dietitian working in private practice and as an eating disorder specialist dietitian in London's leading private mental health hospital. As a freelance dietitian, Talia not only offers 1:1 consultations but can present at your workplace, create recipes or articles or host a cooking demonstration. To enquire please fill out a contact form.