How To Get Your Appetite Back - A Caregiver's Guide to Helping a Loved One Eat More After Illness or Surgery

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Tue Aug 22 2023.

Couple cooking together.

After illness or surgery, many people find they no longer have as big of an appetite. This phenomenon affects people of all ages but is particularly common in seniors. 

“Sickness and surgery can affect the appetite through various mechanisms,” registered dietitian Mary-Ellen Sabat, MS, RDN, LD, explains. “The body’s immune response to illness can lead to inflammation and changes in metabolism, which can suppress appetite. Pain, nausea, and medication side effects can also reduce the desire to eat. Surgery and recovery processes can disrupt normal eating patterns due to pain, anesthesia effects, and the body’s energy allocation toward healing rather than digestion.”

These obstacles can make it challenging to get your loved one the nutrition they need. Thankfully, there are several simple strategies you can use to improve your loved one’s appetite. 

What You’ll Need

Helping your loved one get their appetite back doesn’t require any special equipment. 

“Instead, focus on catering to your loved one’s food preferences. Serve frequent, small meals to avoid overwhelming them and make eating as enjoyable as possible,” says Jabe Brown, BHSc, MSc, a functional medicine specialist at Melbourne Functional Medicine. “Think pleasant ambiance, engaging conversation, etc.” 

Steps to Helping Your Loved One Get Their Appetite Back

Step 1: Provide Small, Frequent Snacks Throughout the Day

Many people recovering from sickness or surgery just don’t have much of an appetite. The thought of eating a big meal can be overwhelming. Offering small snacks at regular intervals helps ease some of that pressure. It also provides the calories and nutrients your loved one needs to thrive.

Sabat recommends adding nutrient-dense snack foods to your pantry and fridge, including:

  • Greek yogurt

  • Berries, bananas, and apples

  • Avocado (mashed or whole)

  • Oatmeal

  • Whole-grain bread

  • Whole-grain crackers

  • Nut butter (peanut, almond, etc.)

  • Unsalted nuts

Step 2: Prepare Visually Appealing and Colorful Dishes

The old saying “we eat first with our eyes” rings true. Recovering from sickness or surgery often comes with diet restrictions. For example, your loved one might need to eat only soft foods or avoid certain ingredients, like red meat. These restrictions can make mealtime unappealing, but an eye for aesthetics can help. One study, published in the Journal Flavour found that visually appealing dishes receive higher tastiness ratings. Use this knowledge to encourage your loved one’s appetite. You can:

  • Serve food on colorful plates or trays

  • Add squiggly straws or mini umbrellas to drinks

  • Use cloth napkins in different colors or with eye-catching patterns

  • Use silverware with colorful handles

  • Brighten the eating environment with flowers or a colorful centerpiece

  • Add flair to dishes with colorful fruits and vegetables like watermelon, pumpkin, and blueberries

Keeping color and design at the forefront of your mind during meal prep can be difficult at first. But if you make it a habit, you’ll master the art in no time. 

Step Three: Encourage Your Loved One to Move Around

Moving around not only burns calories –– it increases appetite. Encourage your loved one to stick to a regular exercise routine, especially if they’re recovering from surgery. Getting up and out of bed helps prevent muscle loss, encourages circulation, and complements the body’s healing process.

Light physical activities, like walking or riding a stationary bike, are great places to start, particularly if your loved one is new to exercise. Visit the doctor before starting any new exercise program to reduce the risk of injury.

Step Four: Socialize with Your Loved One During Meals

Many older adults suffer from loneliness and social isolation. Engaging with your loved one during meals can make the experience that much more enjoyable. Rather than turning on the TV or radio, strike up a conversation. Tell a story about your day. Share a joke. Ask a question. Creating a fun social environment can give your loved one something to look forward to come mealtime. 

Step 5: Create a Supportive and Non-Judgmental Environment

Sometimes, poor appetite occurs due to behavioral conditions, like depression or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). 

“It’s important to approach this type of low appetite differently,” Sabat explains. “Address the underlying emotional factors and consider seeking professional help from a therapist or psychiatrist. Creating a supportive and non-judgmental environment can encourage your loved one to express their feelings and seek appropriate treatment.” 

Step 6: Supplement Snacks and Meals with Protein Shakes

Health problems like gum disease and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) can make chewing painful and increase the risk of choking. Supplementing your loved one’s meals and snacks with protein shakes and smoothies can help them get the necessary calories and provide peace of mind. 

We carry protein shakes from several brands, including:

  • Ensure

  • Boost

  • Carnation 

  • Orgain

  • Pediasure

Hear it from a caregiver

“[These shakes have made a] huge difference in Mom’s appetite, alertness, and overall health.”

Hear it from a caregiver

“Needing to add more protein to my diet I found both the Vanilla and Cafe Mocha flavored [Ensure Max] drinks to be excellent while containing more protein and fewer calories than some other protein supplement products. The Cafe Mocha flavor adds that extra caffeine boost in the middle of the day while the Vanilla flavor goes well with my meatless meals.”

- Nancy N.

Ensure Max Protein Nutritional Shake
Ensure Max Protein Nutritional Shake

Calories Per Serving: 150

Protein Per Serving: 30g

Price: $3.90 - $50.99

Boost High Protein Oral Supplement, Bottle
Boost High Protein Oral Supplement, Bottle

Calories Per Serving: 250

Protein Per Serving: 20g

Price: $13.67 - $58.49

Step 7: Establish a Snack and Meal Schedule

Eating on a schedule is an easy way to keep blood sugar in check and manage energy levels. But it can also improve appetite! After a few weeks of regularly scheduled snacks, you may notice that your loved one starts feeling hungry around the same time. 

Everyone has different nutritional needs, but a good rule of thumb is to serve a snack or meal every three hours. This provides the necessary energy to think and concentrate. It assists with digestion and reduces the risk of side effects if your loved one takes prescription medication. 

How To Get Your Appetite Back - Commonly Asked Questions

1) I want to help my loved one eat, but they have no appetite. What can I do?

Everyone experiences a decreased appetite occasionally, but if your loved one refuses to eat or shows a disinterest in food that lasts for a week, make an appointment with their doctor or healthcare provider. 

Many chronic illnesses cause a lack of appetite, but so do injuries and mental health conditions. A qualified medical professional can determine the cause and make personalized treatment recommendations.

2) When should I see a doctor about a loss of appetite?

Take your loved one to the doctor if they have a poor appetite that lasts for a week or more. That’s particularly true if it occurs alongside other symptoms, like weight loss, nausea, vomiting, or fatigue.

3) Are there medications that can help with a lack of appetite?

Sabat says there are several medications and supplements that can help stimulate appetite, including:

  • Megestrol acetate - a medication that increases appetite and helps to gain weight

  • Mirtazapine - an antidepressant with appetite-stimulating effects

  • Omega-3 fatty acid supplements which have anti-inflammatory effects that may improve appetite

Most people with appetite loss don’t need medication or supplements. In most cases, diet changes are enough to make a lasting difference. 

Have Questions About Lack of Appetite?

Get in touch! Our friendly Care Specialists regularly help family caregivers with meal and snack-related inquiries. They can recommend products, answer your questions, or help educate you on best practices. Call (800) 696-CARE or send an email to support@carewell.com.

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.