8 Ways to Treat a Loved One's Loss of Appetite

No matter the setting—home, hospice facility, or palliative-care center—caregivers often find a loved one's loss of appetite and unintended weight loss disturbing.

If you find yourself in this position, you can help treat your loved one's loss of appetite by stimulating their desire to eat and helping them consume the calories and nutrients they need to stay healthy. It helps to know the right ways to approach this.

Patient with a food tray in hospital ward
Eric Audras / Getty Images

Be Supportive, Not Pushy

You can help your loved one most by reminding yourself that cachexia (unintended weight loss) is a common symptom of many illnesses and one that can be difficult to reverse.

While people struggling with a serious illness may want to eat, symptoms such as the lack of appetite, gastrointestinal symptoms, and mouth sores may stand in their way of doing so. Pushing them to eat only adds to the frustration they're already dealing with.

Isolating someone who isn't hungry can cause depression and loneliness. To encourage eating, make mealtimes an opportunity to socialize.

Even if eating is difficult, invite your loved one to the dinner table or recruit family members and friends to share meals at the bedside. Doing so may enhance their appetite.

Always set realistic goals and celebrate every small achievement. By being supportive, you allow your loved one to be a part of the solution rather than being told what to do.

Offer Favorite Foods

People are more likely to eat if provided the foods they love.

If the loss of appetite is severe, don't worry so much about feeding your loved one the "right" diet. Instead, find the foods that whet the appetite, even if it's just dessert or a plate of mashed potatoes.

You can even bolster calories by serving the dessert à la mode or pouring gravy with meat bits over the potatoes.

If your loved one feels like eating, find the high-calorie, high-fat foods that are most likely to tempt the taste buds. Look for soft or pureed foods that anyone can eat, such as:

  • Rice pudding
  • Shepherd's pie
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Tuna salad
  • Split pea soup
  • Biscuits and gravy
  • Oatmeal with banana
  • Peanut butter and jelly on white bread

You can also make meals more tempting by using colorful foods with different textures, separated on a plate to increase the visual appeal. This is especially helpful if your loved one has impaired vision.

Offer Smaller, Frequent Meals

One of the easiest and most effective ways of increasing a loved one's caloric intake is to offer a smaller meal every couple of hours several times a day, ideally five to six.

Often, people struggling with an appetite will dread the prospect of sitting down for a big meal they know they can't eat. Snacking takes off the pressure.

Even if they miss one meal, you'll still have four or five chances to meet their daily nutrition needs.

Avoid Strong Food Odors

Many long-term illnesses affect not only a person's sense of taste, but their sense of smell, as well. It helps to steer clear of foods with strong odors or flavors, such as:

  • Stinky cheeses
  • Seafood
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Boiled eggs
  • Fried food
  • Offal

Cold foods generally have fewer odors and may be an appropriate option for someone who finds certain food smells nauseating.

Treat Constipation and Nausea

Constipation can create a sense of fullness even if someone is nutritionally deprived.

To treat constipation, ensure that your loved one is properly hydrated and speak with your healthcare provider about the appropriate treatment options, including laxatives and fiber supplements.

Limiting caffeine intake and increasing fiber intake with fruits, vegetables, and grains (20 to 35 grams daily) can also help

If your loved one is struggling with nausea, try bland foods such as the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast). Ginger tea is also a popular anti-nausea remedy. The same non-irritating foods can help people with mouth sores.

Hard candy, popsicles, and ice chips can also help produce saliva and keep the mouth moist.

Provide Nutritional Supplements

Plenty of liquid dietary supplements on the market today, such as Ensure and Boost, that can enhance daily nutrition and help increase weight.

In the past, supplement drinks were only available in chocolate or vanilla flavor, but today you have a wider range of to choose from.

In addition, gels, puddings, and bars are available that provide a variety of textures to help tantalizes the taste buds.

While valuable as a nutritional aid, supplements should never be used as the sole (or even primary) source of daily nutrition.

Explore Medication Options

If dietary measures fail to reverse weight loss, ask your health provider about medications that are known to stimulate the appetite. These include:

Healthcare providers will usually try one or more of these medications and discontinue their use if they do not prove effective.

In the United States, a growing number of states are legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. This drug may not only stimulate the appetite but also improve a sick person's mood.

Consider Natural Remedies

Several naturopathic remedies may also help stimulate the appetite. These include:

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

While there is little hard evidence of their benefits, herbs, teas, and roots like these have been used this way for centuries.

Even so, naturopathic remedies can sometimes interact with your loved one's medications, so check with their nurse or healthcare provider before adding any such product to the treatment plan.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gullett NP, Mazurak VC, Hebbar G, Ziegler TR. Nutritional interventions for cancer-induced cachexia. Curr Probl Cancer. 2011;35(2):58-90. doi:10.1016/j.currproblcancer.2011.01.001

  2. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Appetite loss.

  3. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Nausea and vomiting.

  4. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Mouth sores or mucositis.

  5. Childs DS, Jatoi A. A hunger for hunger: a review of palliative therapies for cancer-associated anorexiaAnn Palliat Med. 2019;8(1):50–58. doi:10.21037/apm.2018.05.08

  6. Cheng KC, Li YX, Cheng JT. The use of herbal medicine in cancer-related anorexia/ cachexia treatment around the world. Curr Pharm Des. 2012;18(31):4819-26. doi:10.2174/138161212803216979

By Angela Morrow, RN
Angela Morrow, RN, BSN, CHPN, is a certified hospice and palliative care nurse.