Forgetting to eat

Dear Alice,

Lots of people worry about overeating. I have the opposite problem. I just don't get hungry. Some days I'll realize it's 10 pm and I haven't eaten anything in 24 hours, but I don't feel any need to have food. (At this point I'll usually make myself eat something).

I maintain a healthy weight, but I'm sure this habit of forgetting to eat isn't good. Do you have any advice for boosting appetite?


— Really, I'm Not Hungry

Dear Really, I’m Not Hungry,

Many people experience brief periods of time when they have lower appetite levels, often related to changes in the body and brain (such as temporary illness or a change in emotion). But because each body needs a minimum amount of fuel to run efficiently and at its highest potential, regularly forgetting to eat can have negative impacts on your health. In particular, eating less than your body needs may affect your metabolic rate, or the number of calories your body needs to perform basic physiological functions such as breathing, circulating blood, and repairing damaged cells. So, it's wise that you're investigating ways to increase your appetite even though it may feel like your body's telling you it doesn't need food. Fortunately, there are some strategies you can employ and working with a health care provider may provide additional ways to try to stimulate your appetite.

When you find that you’re not very hungry, there are some steps you can take to try and increase your appetite. You may want to increase your physical activity. Being active burns calories, and the body may increase its appetite in order to replace the calories that were burned. You could also want to time your beverage consumption. Drinking liquids too soon before eating or during meals may make people fill up and have a smaller appetite for their meals. Additionally, try aiming to eat meals you really enjoy, as eating these types of foods could help to increase your appetite. In addition to boosting those hunger cues, finding ways to remember to eat may be helpful, even when you aren’t feeling hungry. Setting reminders on your calendar or setting an alarm to remind yourself to eat may be helpful cues. You may also try making meals a social event by eating with others when possible to give you additional reminders.

If you’re trying to get to the bottom of your low appetite levels, consider reflecting on some questions: Are you taking any medications that are known to decrease appetite levels? Have you always had a low appetite, or is this a new eating pattern for you? If this is a newer pattern, do you suspect it correlates with any other life events or issues? If this is a fairly new phenomenon or sudden change, consider speaking with a health care provider, as low appetite levels may indeed be indicative of a variety of underlying health issues. Illnesses as simple as the common cold and as serious as cancer are all known to decrease appetite. Other conditions that can cause these symptoms include liver and kidney disease, heart failure, underactive thyroid, and pregnancy, among others. Aside from the potential physical causes, low appetite levels may be affected by a variety of mental health conditions (such as depression and anxiety). Without knowing why your appetite levels are low, it’s tough to predict how exactly a health care provider may treat your symptoms. There are treatment options, including medication to spur appetite, but it will depend on what may be factoring into your low appetite.

Once you figure out what the culprit is behind low appetite, it can still be tricky to figure out what to eat to ensure you're getting the nutrients that can fuel your body. People with low, high, irregular, or even average appetite levels may be curious about what a serving size of food looks like. Generally, nutrition experts believe that the basis for a healthy pattern of eating involves consuming lots colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins such as poultry, fish, beans, and eggs. It’s recommended that foods such as red meats (beef, pork, lamb), processed meats (bacon, deli meats), and refined grains (white potatoes, white bread, white rice) be consumed in moderation. You could learn even more about nutrition choices in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives. 

People often say "listen to your body." Kudos to you for not only listening, but for curiously questioning how to keep your body healthy and safe. Here's to satisfying your hunger for knowledge!

Last updated May 17, 2019
Originally published Sep 07, 2012

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