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7 Ways to Whet an Appetite

Tips to Combat a Loss of Appetite

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Updated June 03, 2011

Loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss are common yet disturbing symptoms in the palliative care patient.

Watching a loved one lose weight, shunning foods that were once their favorite and turning down even the tastiest of dishes, is enough to concern anyone. When your loved one has a life-limiting illness the concern turns to alarm as you expect the worse.

Before you accept defeat, there are some things you can try to stimulate a fading appetite.

Be Supportive Without Being Pushy.

You can help your loved one the most by remembering that anorexia and cachexia are common and usually irreversible symptoms of your loved one's illness. Avoid being too pushy. Your loved one probably would LOVE to eat, but he just can't. Be mindful not to unintentionally isolate someone who has no appetite. Meals are typically social times; not being able to participate in them can feel lonely. Invite him to the dinner table or bring the family and the meal to him.

Offer Favorite Foods

We’re all more likely to eat larger portions of food if it happens to be our favorite. The same might, though not always, be true for you ill loved one. Purchase or prepare their favorite food but try not to be offended if they don’t want it. Sometimes illness makes us detest foods we once enjoyed.

Don’t neglect the high calorie, high fat foods now; the higher calorie content, the better. If your loved one tolerates softer foods better, 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. His wife, Lisa Niemi, pureed his favorite high-fat, high-calorie food -- gourmet chicken pot pie.

Offer Small Meals – Frequently

One of the easiest, and often most effective, ways of increasing calorie intake is to eat small amounts of food several times a day. Aim for 5 to 6 small meals every day. If one meal is refused, you’ll have 4 or 5 more chances to get some nutrition in.

Avoid Noxious Odors

If your loved one has experienced a change in their sense of smell or taste, steer clear of foods that have strong odors or flavors. Stinky cheese, lutefisk, and other smelly foods are out (unless they happen to be your favorite). Cold foods tend to have less of an odor than warmed foods so you may try serving most foods cold.

Offer Nutritional Supplements

There are several really tasty and really healthy supplements on the market. (Ensure and Boost are probably the most popular.) Supplements are an easy way to increase calorie consumption and make up for deficient vitamins and nutrients. It used to be that supplements were only available as chocolate or vanilla flavored liquid 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 can hopefully find something that tantalizes the taste buds.

Natural Remedies

Several naturopathic remedies may help stimulate the appetite. Some examples of natural supplements and herbs include:

  • Cayenne or red pepper
  • Green tea
  • Ginseng
  • Garlic
  • Cardamom
  • Cloves
  • Fennel
  • Ginger
Naturopathic remedies may interact with certain medications. Be sure to give your nurse or physician a complete list of all the herbs and supplements your loved one is taking.

Medications

Ask your healthcare provider about medication that could help increase the appetite. Common ones include megestrol (Megace), steroids like dexamethasone (Decadron), cannabinoids (Marijuana), and Metoclopramide (Reglan). Physicians will usually try one or more of these medications for a time and discontinue them if they aren’t effective. In most of the United States, it’s still a matter of debate whether smoked marijuana can and should be used legally for medicinal purposes.

Set realistic goals and celebrate small achievements. Your efforts at stimulating your loved one's fading appetite may not be heroic, but they’re sure to be appreciated.

Sources:

Ferrell BR, Coyle N. Textbook of Palliative Nursing, 2nd Edition. Oxford Press, 2006.

Kinzbrunner BM, Weinreb NJ, Policzer JS. 20 Common Problems: End of Life Care. McGraw-Hill, 2002.

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