Loss of appetite is a little more common among older adults and it can be a cause for concern if it leads to weight loss.

By Pam McDonald

Loss of appetite is a little more common among older adults and it can be a cause for concern if it leads to weight loss, according to Sarah Gorham, co-founder with Stone Morris of Grind Dining, a Senior Housing Forum partner. They are culinary consultants and specialists in finger food dining for assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities.

Causes of Loss of Appetite

According to Sarah, there are a number of causes for loss of appetite in the elderly, including the following:

  • A poorer sense of taste due to a diminishing number of taste buds as we age

  • Disinterest caused by physical or cognitive conditions or maladies

  • Mental conditions such as depression, often seen with dementia and other experiences of loss of control and independence

  • Physical limitations, such as an inability to handle utensils

  • Dental problems or ill-fitting dentures that cause pain while eating

When Weight Loss is A Problem

“For seniors, a healthy weight is an indication of the wellness of the individual as a whole,” Sarah says. “On the other hand, substantial weight loss is a major health concern.”

Grind Dining allows senior living communities to address this issue by working with them to adapt their menus. “Our solution is to take whatever is on their regular or tradition menu — that is, the cooked protein, carbohydrate, and vegetable — grind and combine them into a base that is then prepared so it can picked up and eaten without a knife or fork,” Sarah explains.

“So, if a community were serving roast beef, sweet potatoes, and green beans, the Grind Dining method enables residents to eat the same foods as everyone else. They’re no longer marginalized,” Sarah notes. “Plus, the food they’re eating is as nutritionally complete as the original meal.”

Combating Loss of Appetite

Sarah suggests that seniors with limited appetites can eat smaller but more frequent meals. “The Grind Dining meals are protein-packed bites but having higher-protein or higher-calorie snacks throughout the day is also a good idea,” Gorham points out.

Seniors can add calories to their diet by consuming a nutrition drink. Gorham recommends trying smoothies made with fruits or vegetables. “You can really pack in the nutrients and even add in some protein powder,” she says.

While there are some pharmaceutical options for stimulating appetite, Sarah notes that there is only limited evidence of their effectiveness as well as concerns about side effects. She believes that stimulating the appetite naturally may be much more desirable and offers the following suggestions:

  • Use aromatherapy — This is a technique that Grind Dining uses successfully with dementia residents and other seniors. “What we do is put a sweet spice into a rice cooker, or into a small pot of water. You can use cinnamon, fennel, or cardamom,” Sarah suggests. “Seniors walk into a room, and say, ‘Ooh, that smells good. I want to eat.’ It stimulates the appetite.” 
  • Create a visually appealing presentation — “If someone sees something that looks good on the plate, they’ll be more inclined to eat it,” Sarah points out. “We all eat with our eyes.”
  • Spice things up For seniors who are watching their sodium intake, replace the salt with other flavor enhancers. “We encourage the use of fresh herbs and spices as is appropriate to the flavor profile you’re trying to create,” Gorham states. “This could include the addition of cinnamon, basil, cilantro, tarragon, or mint. As seniors taste buds change, it may take some really bold flavors to stimulate their appetite.”
  • Use a citrus-based sorbet at mealtimes Sarah cites a research study that credits a sorbet appetizer for increasing the appetite of residents at a skilled nursing facility. “The science behind it is that tartness of the citrus activates the salivary gland, increasing salivation, which is the body’s cue to eating.”
  • Sweeten things up — Even seniors with weak appetites often like desserts, so Sarah suggests adding “sweet appeal” to a main course. For example: Coat some apples in a bit of cinnamon or some sugar and lemon juice; steam, poach, or bake them, and add them to the dinner plate. “It’s very healthy, works as a garnish, and can be effective in increasing someone’s desire to eat,” Sarah says.

“Food is nutrition and nourishment, but it’s so much more,” concludes Sarah. “Anything we can do to create an engaging dining experience for our residents will add to their quality of life.”