7 Ways to Treat a Patient's Loss of Appetite

Patient Bed with Dinner Plate in Hospital

Caregivers often find a loved one's loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss disturbing in home, hospice or palliative-care settings. This article offers seven suggestions to help you treat a patient's loss of appetite, stimulate their desire to eat and help them consume needed calories and nutrients.

Be Supportive but Not Pushy

You can help your loved one the most by remembering that cachexia (unintentional weight loss) might be a common symptom of your loved one's illness and often difficult to reverse. Your loved one might want to eat, but he or she just can't at this time, so you should avoid being too pushy.

In addition, be mindful not to unintentionally isolate someone who has no appetite. Meals are typically social times and not being able to participate in them can make the patient feel lonely. Therefore, invite your loved one to the dinner table or bring the family and the meal to him or her.

Offer Favorite Foods

Most people are more likely to feel like eating, and consume larger portions if that food happens to be a personal favorite. While not always true for someone facing a life-limiting illness or disease, you should consider purchasing or preparing his or her favorite food — but try not to feel offended if he or she still doesn't want it. Sometimes illness simply makes us detest even the foods we once enjoyed the most.

If your loved one does feel like eating, you should select high-calorie, high-fat foods right now. (In fact, the higher the caloric content, the better.) And if your loved one tolerates softer foods better, then you should mash or puree their favorite foods in a food processor or blender. Patrick Swayze, the actor made famous by Dirty Dancing and Ghost, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2008. During his terminal illness, his wife pureed his favorite high-fat, high-calorie food — gourmet chicken potpies — for him.

Offer Frequent Smaller Meals

One of the easiest, and often most effective, ways of increasing a patient's caloric intake are to offer him or her small amounts of food several times a day. Therefore, you should aim for five to six small meals every day. This way, even if he or she refuses one meal, you'll still have four or five more chances to help your loved one consume the nutrition needed.

Avoid Creating Noxious Odors

If your loved one has experienced a change in his or her sense of smell or taste, you should steer clear of foods with strong odors or flavors, such as stinky cheese, lutefisk, and other smelly foods. Cold foods generally possess fewer odors than warm/hot foods, so you might try serving most of the patient's food cold.

Offer Nutritional Supplements

There are many liquid dietary supplements on the market today, such as Ensure and Boost, that offer an easy way to increase your loved one's calorie consumption and help make up for vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Previously, supplements were only available in chocolate or vanilla flavors, but consumers have a lot more choices available to them now. Liquids, puddings, and bars come in a wide variety of flavors and textures, so with a bit of experimenting, you might hopefully find something that tantalizes your patient's taste buds.

Consider Natural Remedies

Several naturopathic remedies might help stimulate your loved one's appetite. Some examples of natural supplements and herbs include:

  • Cardamom
  • Cayenne or red pepper
  • Cloves
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Ginseng
  • Green tea

Naturopathic remedies can interact with certain medications, so you should give your nurse or physician a complete list of all the herbs and supplements your loved one is taking and/or discuss adding a natural supplement first before giving it to your loved one.


Ask your healthcare provider about any medication(s) that might help increase your loved one's appetite. Common ones include megestrol acetate, steroids such as dexamethasone, cannabinoids (marijuana), and Reglan (Metoclopramide). Physicians will usually try one or more of these medications and discontinue them if they do not prove effective. In the United States, a growing number of states are legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Finally, remember that if you are trying to get your loved one to eat, you should set realistic goals and celebrate every small achievement. Your efforts at stimulating your loved one's fading appetite might not be heroic, but they are surely appreciated.

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Article Sources
  • Ferrell B.R., Coyle N. Textbook of Palliative Nursing, 2nd Edition. Oxford Press, 2006.
  • Kinzbrunner B.M., Weinreb N.J., Policzer J.S. 20 Common Problems: End of Life Care. McGraw-Hill, 2002.