Is My Loss of Appetite an Eating Disorder?

Man with no appetite sits with empty bowl

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A fluctuation in your appetite is normal as your body calibrates how much energy intake you need for the day. Things such as strenuous workouts, illnesses, and mood all play a role in the desire for food in the short term. But how do you know when your appetite loss is signaling a more serious issue? In some cases, appetite loss may be a sign of an eating disorder.

This article discusses how appetite loss might be related to eating disorders. It also covers some of the other factors that may play a part in appetite loss.

Understanding Eating Disorders

There are many reasons why you might be experiencing a loss in appetite. You might wonder if it's a sign of an eating disorder; however, it's possible that it's a sign of other underlying issues.

Eating Disorder Criteria

An eating disorder requires two important things, and both are necessary in order to meet the criteria for this condition: disordered eating behavior and psychological impact.

Disordered eating behavior may include:

Other aspects of disordered eating include a pattern of abnormal eating behaviors and thought patterns around food, body, weight, or shape. 

In regard to the psychological aspect of the illness, eating disorders are often related to the pursuit of an idealized body image or weight. These behaviors may be related to losing weight, but can also be related to factors such as a need to gain a sense of control or to manage emotions. A person may do anything to achieve that goal, including behaviors that are dangerous to their health.

Recap

Eating disorders are caused by a mixture of genetic, social, and environmental factors. The desire to lose weight is often a major factor, but disordered eating can also be a coping mechanism that has less to do with weight and food and more to do with managing difficult or painful emotions.

Appetite Loss Alone Is Not Indicative of an Eating Disorder

Something to bear in mind is that a person with an eating disorder has not simply lost their appetite. A common misconception is that those dealing with anorexia nervosa are never hungry. This is untrue.

However, someone dealing with anorexia is resisting that hunger in order to achieve their objective, which may be to lose weight, attain a certain body image, gain control, or relieve distress.

An eating disorder is not merely a loss of appetite, and it is not a diet. When an eating disorder is part of the picture, the person is hardly ever satisfied with their body, regardless of their weight.

Eating disorders are complex psychiatric disorders that require medical support. If this describes you, consider reaching out to a mental health care professional or a primary care doctor. You can also call the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) hotline at (800) 931-2237 or visit their website for online chat and text options.

Other Causes of Appetite Loss

If you're concerned about your appetite loss, consider some of the following common causes.

Depression

Depression can lead to changes in your appetite. For some, that may mean an increase in the desire to eat, particularly comfort foods. For others, they may experience dramatically diminished hunger.

People with depression who report decreased appetite as one of their symptoms have been found to have less blood flow to the insula, a part of the brain involved in responding to food cues.

Others with depression describe that they do, in fact, experience hunger but simply don’t "feel like" eating. There is this lack of motivation to meet their needs.

Depression can make the idea of preparing a meal or even the act of eating itself feel overwhelming and like too much effort.

It's important to note that some people can be depressed and not in touch with the sadness and anxiety that comes to mind when we think of depression.

Things such as loss of appetite, insomnia, brain fog, and fatigue are what someone may notice first. All of these symptoms may indicate that a depressive disorder might be playing a role in your diminished appetite.

Medication

Your medication regimen may be a factor in a loss of appetite. Some medications such as opioid pain relievers slow the movement of food throughout the gastrointestinal system which leads to a prolonged feeling of fullness and potentially constipation. These side effects can make food unappealing.

Stimulant medications, most commonly used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are another potential culprit and can have you opting out of your next meal.

In fact, in the past, stimulants were sometimes prescribed for the purpose of diminishing appetite in someone who wanted to lose weight or manage symptoms of binge eating disorder (BED).

Aging

Another cause of a dwindling desire for food is aging. Approximately 15% to 30% of older adults have what has been called "the anorexia of aging." This seems to be more common in women and those in the nursing home or assisted living setting.

Decreased Excitement About Food

There are several potential causes for this including the fact that time can dull the senses. How excited you are about the food that you have available is a factor in appetite. So how your meal tastes, smells, and looks play an integral role in how appealing it is to you.

We know that the smell of cookies fresh out the oven or the look of a burger piled high with all the fixings revs up those gastric engines. With age, you can experience a decline in vision, sense of smell, and of taste. All of this can take away from your ability to really appreciate food, and make meals a lot less interesting.

Lower Energy

Furthermore, as you age, your energy demands may decline. This is, in part, because of bone and muscle loss. On average, you can lose up to 1% of skeletal muscle every year. This, in addition to less physical activity, can decrease your caloric needs such that you may find yourself naturally eating less over time.

Difficulty Chewing

Difficulty chewing due to weakened facial muscles, poor dentition, or reduced saliva production are other reasons why eating can become unpleasant or taxing the older you get. Up to 30% of older adults in one study were found to have decreased saliva production, although, much of this was due to one or more of their medications.

Decreased appetite can present a serious risk of nutritional deficiency among older adults. There are several liquid meal replacements on the market that are designed to make getting sufficient calories, protein, and even fiber a bit easier. These are widely available and come in a variety of flavors, which increase their appeal and can be a great solution for a diminished appetite.

Loneliness

Many of us associate food with socializing, fun, celebrations, and holidays. These are things that make food and cooking fun and festive and give meals some emotional significance. Routinely eating alone can feel boring and dull. For some, eating alone is simply not as pleasurable and can make the act of eating feel like a tedious chore.

Illness

Acute illnesses such as infections can cause the release of chemicals in your body called cytokines, which can lead to inflammation and diminish the appetite. Short-term illness can also lead to symptoms like pain and nausea, which can have you turning up your nose to food.

Chronic illness such as heart disease, hypothyroidism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney failure, chronic liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, and some cancers can all cause biological changes that can lead to waning appetite.

Recap

A loss of appetite can be caused by a variety of factors. This can include eating disorders, but it may also be caused by depression, medications, illness, or other factors.

A Word From Verywell

A sustained decrease in your desire to eat or ability to finish meals can be a signal that something is amiss with your physical or mental health.

A sharp drop in food intake can lead to deficiencies in important vitamins and minerals. And remember, you don’t have to be underweight to be at nutritional risk. Do check in with a healthcare provider if you are experiencing sustained loss of appetite in order to rule out any serious underlying causes. 

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind 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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