Appetite and health
Having a good appetite is important to make sure your body gets all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.
As you get older or become unwell, your appetite can disappear.
This page offers tips to help you eat better.
Some of the information may be different to typical ‘healthy eating’. However, when you are ill healthy eating may be harmful for your health.
Once you are well or a healthy weight you can return to healthy eating.
Possible side effects of having a small appetite
- Higher risk of infection
- Higher risk of falls
- Lower mood
- Lower energy levels
- Loss of muscle and reduced strength
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Hospital treatment may be less effective
- More hospital admissions and longer hospital stays
Tips for eating better with a small appetite
- Eat ‘little and often’.
- Have 2-3 small snacks or milky drinks in between meals.
- Try not to skip meals. Skipping meals often can cause low appetite.
- Choose full fat/full sugar versions of food/drink rather than the ‘diet’ alternatives.
- Try to eat more on the days and times you feel well.
- Aim to have 1 pint of milk a day. This can be in tea, coffee or milkshakes.
- If following a plant based diet, try and include alternative milky drinks and puddings (e.g soya, oat milks etc).
- Have a pudding after meals.
- Eat in a peaceful environment. You may find turning on the TV or eating with friends and family helpful.
- If cooking/shopping is too much, consider meals on wheels e.g. Wiltshire Farm Foods, Oakhouse or Cook.
- If you have access to the internet you may also find home delivery helpful. Age UK and Red Cross can help with shopping.
Which foods should I snack on?
Foods with lots of energy and protein are a good source of fuel. They also help fight infection.
High protein foods include:
- Meat, fish, poultry
- Cheese, milk, eggs
- Tofu, beans, lentils
- Yoghurt, cream and milky puddings
- Nuts and seeds
- Milky drinks e.g. hot chocolate, ovaltine
- Fortified drinks and food
- If on a plant based diet - dairy free milks and puddings
High energy foods include:
- Fruit juice and smoothies
Choose full-fat versions of these foods whilst you are unwell.
Aim for 2-3 snacks every day.
- “Cream of” soups - have 1 x tin or 1/2 tin with croutons
- Handful of Bombay mix or nuts
- Matchbox size portion of cheese and crackers
- 1x bag of crisps
- Slice of quiche
- 3 x cocktail sausages
- 2 x mini sausage rolls
- 1 x small pork pie
- 1 x slice of toast with butter
- 1 x crumpet or bagel with butter
- 1 x slice toast with butter and jam/marmite/peanut butter/chocolate spread
- Scone with jam and cream
- Rice pudding
- Cereal bar
- 1 x tea cake
- 1 x slice malt loaf
- Individual puddings e.g. trifle, custard, cheesecake, mousse
- 1 x bar of chocolate
- Full fat yoghurt
- 1 x handful of dried fruit
- 1-2 x scoop of ice cream
If you struggle to have extra snacks try to have 1-2 nourishing drinks instead.
Aim to have 1 pint of milk a day. Use in cereal, tea, coffee and other nourishing drinks listed below.
- Full cream milk (aim for 1 pint per day)
- Hot chocolate
- Malted drinks
- Milky coffee and tea
- Sugary fizzy drinks e.g. lucozade, cola
- Fruit juice
- Soya drinks e.g. Provamel, Alpro Soya
This can be helpful to make food more nourishing, without having to eat a larger portion.
- Whisk 4 heaped tablespoons of milk powder (e.g. Marvel or supermarket own brand) into 1 pint full fat milk.
- Use this fortified milk in cereal, porridge, milky drinks, tea/coffee, puddings, soups and sauces.
Fortified mashed potato
- Add 1 x heaped tablespoon of butter and 1 x tablespoon of cheese to a scoop of mashed potato.
- Use fortified milk.
Fortified yoghurt/custard/milk pudding
- Add 1 x heaped tablespoon of milk powder to one serving of yoghurt/custard/milk pudding.
- Add toppings such as jam, syrup, honey, seeds or fruit.
- Use spreads (e.g butter/margarine) generously.
- Use lots of mayonnaise or salad cream.
- Choose nutritious fillings such as peanut butter, egg mayonnaise, ham, tuna or cheese.
- Add cream, fortified milk, evaporated milk, creme fraiche, cheese or cooked meat.
- Have croutons or bread.
- Choose creamy varieties e.g. cream of tomato.
- If using cuppa soups, make with fortified milk.
- Use enriched milk to make white, cheese or packet sauces.
- Add meat juice to gravy.
- Add grated cheese, oil or 1 x teaspoon milk powder to one serving of tomato based sauces.
Fortified vegetables and salads
- Try frying or roasting vegetables instead of boiling/steaming.
- Add butter or grated cheese to vegetables.
- Have cheesy or creamy sauces with vegetables.
- Add cheese, nuts, eggs, beans, tofu or lentils to salads.
- Use generous helpings of oil/creamy dressing and croutons/potatoes.
What about diabetes?
If you have diabetes and a poor appetite it may not be helpful to follow the usual ‘low fat, low sugar’ healthy eating advice.
However, once your appetite has returned to normal, you can return to healthy eating.
- Creamy scrambled egg with buttered toast
- Porridge/cereals with honey/sugar
- Crumpets with butter and jam
- Muesli with whole cream milk and natural yoghurt
- Beans on buttered toast with grated cheese topping
- A buttered jacket potato with tuna mayonnaise filling.
- Ham or cheese omelette, chips and salad with mayonnaise
- A creamy soup with added grated cheese and croutons
- Shepherd’s pie with grated cheese topping and vegetables with added margarine or butter
- Chicken curry or dahl with rice or chapatti spread with oil, butter or margarine
- Cauliflower cheese made with fortified milk with grated cheese topping
- Fish in cheese sauce with creamed potatoes and vegetables with added margarine or butter
- Milk pudding e.g. rice/tapioca/semolina
- Baked egg custard
- Crumble with ice cream
- Trifle with cream
- Jelly made with fortified milk
Some people may be prescribed nutritional supplements from their doctor or dietitian.
Supplements are drinks that are high in energy and protein and can be helpful for some people whilst unwell. They are available on prescription. Your doctor or dietitian will discuss these with you if they think you may need them.
You can buy other supplements such as Complan or Meritene from local chemists. You may find these helpful if you cannot make nourishing drinks at home.
For further information you may find the following resources useful.
Brotherton et.al (2010). ‘Malnutrition Matters: Meeting Quality Standards in nutritional Care.’ A report on behalf of the BAPEN Quality Group
Cook Food - freezer meals with delivery service
Parsleybox - cupboard meals with delivery service
Wiltshire Farm Foods
Eating well in later life - Malnutrition Task Force
Food enrichment - BAPEN
Malnutrition fact sheet - British Dietetic Association
The Red Cross - offering help with shopping
AgeUK - offering help with shopping
How to contact us
Dietetic Department: 0117 414 5248
If you or the individual you are caring for need support reading this leaflet please ask a member of staff for advice.
If you’re an overseas visitor, you may need to pay for your treatment or you could face fraud or bribery
charges, so please contact the overseas office: Tel: 0117 414 3764 Email: email@example.com
© North Bristol NHS Trust. This edition published April 2023. Review due April 2026. NBT002833