IBD and Loss of Appetite

One of the common signs of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a lack of appetite. In the United States, we have an obesity epidemic, and a loss of appetite might seem desirable at times. It's true that eating too much or eating unhealthy foods can lead to difficulty, but eating too little is also a problem. 

Woman with bowl and spilt breakfast cereal
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A chronic illness, especially one that causes inflammation, may actually lead to an increased need for calories and protein to fight the disease, rather than fewer calories. That means that people with IBD may need to eat more food in a flare-up, even though the trend is often to eat less.

A lack of appetite can be a major obstacle to wellness, especially in people with IBD, who often have a difficult relationship with food. Not feeling like eating is common, but there are a variety of ways to stimulate your appetite and get more calories in your body.

Why IBD Causes A Lack of Appetite

There are several reasons why people with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis experience a decrease in appetite. One main problem is that eating is often associated with symptoms such as nausea, pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Sometimes there is altered taste.

Another reason is that symptoms of nausea and diarrhea tend to make people feel less like eating. Complications from IBD, such as mouth ulcers, can also prevent people with IBD from eating certain types of foods. Fatigue can also be a factor — if you're tired, you're less likely to prepare and consume healthy meals.

Problems Caused by a Lack of Appetite

If eating causes pain or bloating and there is a general lack of appetite, people with IBD may not eat enough calories during the day. Not eating enough calories to sustain a healthy weight can result in weight loss and a lack of nutrients.

Some people with chronic digestive diseases like IBD may need to take in more calories from food, and more nutrients in order to combat the lack of vitamins and minerals being taken up by the small intestine. Nutritional supplements are an option that can help with nutrient intake, especially for those losing weight.

Dealing With a Loss of Appetite

Of course, the first step in treating a lack of appetite is to consult your healthcare team. Your gastroenterologist or internist can help you treat the IBD. Treating a flare-up of IBD will help increase appetite by relieving any negative symptoms that are associated with eating, as well as help you to feel better overall.

In receiving medical treatment, a dietitian can assist with providing tools and strategies for relief of symptoms by modifying your eating patterns and food selection. Nutrition therapy for IBD is to first maintain enough calorie and protein intake to prevent malnutrition.

There is no one diet that treats IBD. However, foods that promote inflammation, such as processed foods and red meats, tend to worsen symptoms and may even increase the risk of relapse of IBD. Vitamins and mineral supplements may be needed in cases where certain food groups are eliminated from your diet to help with IBD symptoms. Consult a dietitian to find out what is the best dietary regimen for you. 

Other Tips That May Help

While your healthcare team is working to get the flare-up under control, and you're learning how to eat more healthfully, you can also try these other tips that might increase your appetite.

Eat Smaller Meals

Eat smaller meals—whether or not IBD is flaring. Eating small meals has many benefits, including keeping your blood glucose level constant throughout the day, which in turn keeps your energy level up.

Eating a smaller meal also means that you are not eating a larger, heavier meal. A larger meal is going to be more likely to lead to symptoms such as abdominal bloating, which is not desirable at any time, least of all during an IBD flare-up.

Eat Foods You Enjoy

Eating foods you enjoy can help you take in more calories. Food should be healthful and nutritious, but it should also be something that you actually want to eat. Try incorporating your favorite foods, as long as you can tolerate them.

Have a Hydration Strategy

While you need to drink plenty of fluids during the day, drinking can also make you feel full. If you find that you're feeling full from drinking, you might try eating first, and then taking in your fluids. Drinks can also include calories, and in some cases, adding drinks with calories to your diet may be helpful (check with your healthcare provider).

Try Eating Fish

Consider eating fish (salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines) at least three times per week to add omega-3 into your diet as they have anti-inflammatory properties.

Limit Alcohol, Caffeine, and Sweets

Limit alcohol since it is pro-inflammatory. You may also want to limit food and beverages and sugary treats that tend to be associated with diarrhea, such as caffeinated beverages, juices, sodas and candy.

Consider Your Dairy Intake

Some people with IBD, especially those with Crohn's disease, may also have lactose intolerance and benefit from a lactose-free diet. Lactose is a milk sugar found in dairy products and those who are lactose intolerant are unable to fully digest lactose.

After you eat dairy foods, monitor symptoms of lactose intolerance, such as gas, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.

Eat Easy-to-Digest Foods After Flare Ups

After a flare episode, you may want to introduce foods that are easy to digest such as applesauce, canned fruit, oatmeal, plain chicken, turkey or fish, cooked eggs, mashed potatoes, rice or pasta, white or sourdough bread.

Once you establish tolerance, introduce one or two items every few days and avoid foods that causes symptoms. 

A Word From Verywell

It's important to take in enough calories to keep the body nourished. Going for weeks or months eating little food or food devoid of nutrients can leave a body malnourished. Food and eating should be a pleasant experience, so taking any steps you can to make mealtime stress-free and enjoyable is important.

12 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.
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Additional Reading

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.