Like many physical functions, appetite is something we rarely give a second thought to until something goes wrong. A few days of poor appetite when you have a cold or the flu isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. In fact, when you’re not feeling well, eating less lets your body direct more energy towards fighting the illness, instead of towards digestion. There are times, though, when loss of appetite can lead to serious health problems. If your appetite loss continues for more than a week or if it occurs for no apparent reason, it may be a sign of a more serious problem.
While appetite often decreases with age, conditions such as AIDS and cancer can also reduce appetite. Ironically, a lack of vitamins and minerals, particularly zinc, caused by poor nutrition can also lead to a loss of appetite. Imbalances in the endocrine system or digestive system are other potential factors. If you’re unsure why your appetite is low, first visit a physician to investigate the causes and learn which corrective measures are right for you.
Foods and Scent
To some extent, the foods you eat do influence your appetite. One dietary way to stimulate appetite is by eating more protein and foods that are calorie-rich, but heart-healthy, such as nuts, seeds, and soy. Getting your share of healthy fats like those in flax oil and olive oil can also help. In addition, these foods help you get enough nutrients even when you don’t feel like eating much. If you already know your diet is less than ideal, taking a vitamin B complex supplement along with zinc and vitamin A could also help increase appetite.
For the most part, though, appetite is a matter of brain chemistry and there are many ways to activate the appetite that don’t depend on eating certain foods. For instance, most of the appetite-whetting effect of herbs come not from their nutritional value, but from their scent. You may find you can perk up your appetite just by smelling strongly scented herbs that you find pleasant. Basil, oregano, and garlic are common favorites, but there are numerous other herbs and spices known to set the stomach grumbling. For instance, cayenne not only spices up food, some people even add it to fruit juice. If you’re one for strong flavors, horseradish is another appetite-stimulating choice. Cloves, typically used in meat dishes and stews, can lend an enticing aroma to warmed fruit juice and tea, as well. Fennel adds a warm, appetizing fragrance to foods and the leaves and seeds can be made into tea. Caraway brings a savory aroma and piquant flavor to soups and baked goods.
Certain herbal teas, such as peppermint, anise, or licorice tea, are also traditionally used to increase appetite. Chinese ginseng tea improves appetite for some who use it, but it’s also known to cause nervousness and jitters, and so should be used with caution.
A sedentary lifestyle can dull appetite over time. You don’t need to spend a whole day on the farm to work up an appetite, though; office workers can benefit from just taking a brisk walk once or twice a day, preferably an hour or so before mealtime. Swimmers should note that a study lead by Lesley White at the University of Florida found that people who exercise in cold water tend to eat more after their workout than those who swim in warm water. If you’re underweight, though, intensive exercise is best left until your appetite has begun to pick up.
Colors and shapes
Colors play a subtle, but important part in stimulating appetite. Marketing research has determined that green, brown, and red are the most appealing food colors, while red, yellow, and orange boost appetite. Conversely, blue, purple, and black can ruin the appetite. It’s thought that the latter group of colors is so unappetizing because mold often takes on these colors and we’ve evolved to steer clear of any food that appears spoiled. The affects of color go not only for the food itself, but also for the color of your plates, eating utensils, table linens, and even your room decor.
The dishes you use can also influence your appetite. According to research conducted by Professor Brian Wansink at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, people drink more from short, fat glasses than from tall, thin glasses. He also found that appetite picks up when the brain thinks there’s a wider variety of food available, such as when food is placed in several small dishes instead of in one large one. Professor Wansink’s research showed that party guests ate 16% more when snacks were divided into 12 small bowls rather than placed in a single large bowl.
Much of the pleasure we get from eating is not from food, but from social interaction. For those who live alone, it’s easy to skip meals. If a solitary lifestyle is wearing away at your appetite, joining a business breakfast club or interest-based social club could take care of the problem for at least a few meals a week. Because emotional strain and anxiety are also known to curtail appetite, having meals with friends in a relaxed environment can improve mood and, with it, appetite.
If you’re fond of sleeping in, getting up a little earlier may also benefit your appetite. A study run by Emmanuel Mignot at Stanford University and another by Dr. Esra Tasali at the University of Chicago Medical Center has found that that sleep loss can lead to lower levels of leptin, the hormone that limits appetite.
Should your doctor determine that your appetite loss is a serious threat to your health, medications such as dexamethasone, megestrol acetate (Megace®), or Marinol® may be prescribed. In less serious cases, though, simply using appetizing herbs and spices, getting a little more exercise, and making changes to your dining environment can help you regain a healthy appetite.