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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Tips can help senior who loses appetite (6/15/12)

June 15, 2012

My mother is in her 80s and seems to have lost her appetite. She is losing quite a bit of weight, and her doctor is concerned. How can we encourage her to eat more?

First, it’s good that your mother’s doctor is involved. Malnutrition caused by a poor diet can lead to other health problems, including a weakened immune system, problems with wound healing and muscle weakness (which can lead to falls and fractures). In addition, unexplained weight loss often is due to underlying health issues or the use of certain medications. So, keeping health professionals in the loop is essential.

Loss of appetite in seniors could have other causes, too. Your mother might be lonely or depressed. She might be experiencing a reduced sense of taste or smell, which can affect appetite, or of sight, which could make it more difficult to prepare food. She might have dental problems that cause discomfort when she eats. If you can identify an underlying problem, try to address it and you might find your mother’s appetite returns.

In the meantime, there are other things that can help. First, focus on protein, which is especially important to prevent malnutrition in the elderly. Canned salmon and tuna are versatile sources of protein that can be used in or added to a number of dishes. Add extra milk to mashed potatoes to increase protein. Or, ask your mother’s doctor if adding a high-protein supplement to soups, stews or other foods might be worthwhile.

You also could make your mother single-serving homemade frozen dinners that she can easily pull out of the freezer and microwave.

Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Mayo Clinic offer other ideas, including:

  • Encourage your mom to eat five or six small meals a day. This is especially helpful if your mother fills up quickly during a meal.
  • Keep nutritious, easy snack foods readily available, including nuts, peanut butter, cheese, crackers, milk, yogurt, fruit, raw vegetables and ice cream. Keep nonperishable items on the counter or otherwise out in the open as a visual reminder for your mother to have a snack.
  • Add cheese, 2 percent milk, beans, vegetables, rice and pasta to stews, soups and other dishes.
  • Try using new herbs and spices, especially if your mom is on a low-salt diet.
  • Drink milk, juice or even hot chocolate more often than coffee and tea, which provide few calories.
  • When possible, make mealtime a social event. Eating with others often sparks the appetite.

 For more ideas, see “Senior health: How to prevent and detect malnutrition” from the Mayo Clinic at

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or  

Editor: This column was reviewed by Julie Kennel, nutrition program manager for Ohio State University Extension and director of the Dietetic Internship Program in the Department of Human Nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Martha Filipic
Julie Kennel