What Causes Loss of Appetite?

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Food gives your body the energy it needs to stay healthy. Your brain and your gut work together to determine when you need to eat and when you’re full. When you have no appetite, it’s a sign that there may be something wrong.

In many cases, not feeling hungry is a temporary problem often caused by an acute illness. However, persistent loss of appetite can be a serious symptom of a medical or mental health condition.

A lack of appetite may stem from a variety of physical or psychological causes. Understanding the reason why you have no appetite is key to determining how to best treat the issue.

Medical Conditions That Cause Loss of Appetite

The loss of appetite isn’t usually a primary condition. Instead, it’s a symptom of another issue. Sometimes, the cause is fleeting—such as in the case of a stomach bug. But at other times, it can be longer-lasting and may require treatment.

  • Aging: Appetite often changes with age. Older people may lack interest in food due to changing taste buds, dementia, health problems, medication side effects, or mental health problems. Sometimes elderly people eat less because they’ve decreased their activity level and have fewer caloric needs.
  • Anemia: Anemia occurs when there is an abnormally low level of blood cells. Loss of appetite and weight loss can both be signs of anemia, especially if these symptoms are combined with fatigue.
  • Cancer: Appetite loss is common among individuals with cancer. It may be directly linked to the illness, especially when associated with cancers of the digestive tract, like stomach or pancreatic cancer, but it can also appear with lung or ovarian cancers. Appetite loss may also be a side effect of cancer treatments.
  • Diabetes: Individuals with diabetes may not feel hungry for several reasons. Sometimes, diabetes causes a condition in which food moves too slowly through the digestive tract. Untreated high blood sugar may also cause high levels of ketones to build in the blood and urine.
  • Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism may suppress the desire to eat. It may also lead to weight gain, despite fewer calories being consumed.
  • Infections: There are a variety of stomach bugs that lead to appetite loss. A cold, the flu, or other infections may also affect a person’s desire to eat. When the infection clears, the appetite returns.
  • Medication: Although many medications may lead to decreased appetite, sleeping pills, antibiotics, blood pressure medications, diuretics, anabolic steroids, and painkillers are among the most common. They may cause nausea and fatigue as well.
  • Pain: Severe pain can cause you to feel too sick to eat. Migraine, stomach pain, or other types of pain may cause you to lose interest in food.
  • Pregnancy: Expectant mothers may experience nausea and loss of appetite, especially early on in pregnancy.
  • Stomach issues: Stomach issues, especially digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease, may decrease appetite.

Mental Health Conditions That Cause Loss of Appetite

There are several mental health conditions that may affect your appetite. Anything from increased stress or grief to a diagnosable mental illness may cause you to lose your desire to eat.

Improving your psychological well-being can improve your appetite. Here are some of the most common psychological reasons people lose their appetite:

  • Anxiety: Some people with anxiety become so overwhelmed with worry that they lose their desire to eat.
  • Depression: Individuals with clinical depression may lose interest in everything—including food. They may lack the energy to prepare meals and may have little interest in eating. They may also experience nausea.
  • Stress: The body’s physical response to acute stress often suppresses appetite (although some people experience the opposite effect—they overeat when stressed out). Physical symptoms associated with stress are common, such as nausea or the sensation of a “knot in the stomach,” which makes food unappealing.
  • Substance Use: While some people gain weight from their substance use, others lose it. Drug or alcohol use may decrease an individual’s appetite.

If you’ve lost your appetite for a few days, there is likely nothing to worry about. It’s normal to experience minor fluctuations in appetite over time. But if it lasts more than a few days, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as fatigue, pain, or vomiting, contact your physician.

How To Treat Loss of Appetite

The treatment for the loss of appetite depends on the cause. Your physician will likely ask questions about how often you eat, how you feel after eating, whether your weight has changed, or how long your appetite has been an issue.

Your physician may choose to run tests, such as blood tests or an ultrasound of your stomach, depending on the initial impressions from your interview and physical exam. Tests can help identify the root cause of your loss of appetite.

When loss of appetite is part of a more serious illness, good nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight may be very important to healing. Therefore, a physician may make it a top priority to help you get your appetite back as soon as possible.

Depending on the diagnosis, your physician may recommend the following treatments:

  • A better sleep schedule
  • A special diet that will help maintain proper nutrition
  • Improved self-care
  • Increased physical activity
  • Medication to increase your appetite
  • Talk therapy

Sometimes, you may be referred to a dietitian who can assist you with meal planning and symptom management. You might be asked to eat several small meals each day or to cut out certain foods while adding others. A dietitian can also advise you on nutritional supplements that may help you get all the nutrients you need.

How to Cope

When you don't feel like eating, try consuming bland foods like rice, bananas, or broth-based soups. Sweet potatoes and soft-boiled eggs are both easy-to-eat, nutrient-dense options. Shakes, smoothies, and juices can also be a way to consume calories and nutrients if you are not up to eating a meal.

Effects of Untreated Loss of Appetite

Temporarily losing your appetite is unlikely to cause serious problems, and it will often resolve on its own. Failing to treat a loss of appetite can have several serious health consequences. Some potential complications you might experience if your loss of appetite is not adequately addressed include:

  • Electrolyte imbalances 
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of unwellness
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Malnutrition
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Weight loss

Some of these effects can lead to serious health problems and may be life-threatening. If you are experiencing a loss of appetite that isn't related to a recent illness or lasts longer than a week, talk to your doctor to get the medical attention you need to address your appetite issues.

A Word From Verywell

The prognosis for loss of appetite depends heavily on the cause. For some, it’s a mild issue that resolves on its own. For others, it can become a serious, life-threatening problem that requires intensive medical intervention.

Whether you or someone you love has no appetite, a lack of interest in food and weight loss can be scary. But don’t ignore the issue if it lasts more than a few days.

It might not be a big deal, yet it also might be a sign of an underlying condition that needs treatment. Talk to your physician about any changes in appetite, and learn how to best address the issue. 

12 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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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.