Appetite is a person’s desire to eat food. This desire can stem from physical hunger cues as well as mental and emotional cues. It is controlled by a complex network of hormones and neurotransmitters in the body.
Since food intake and energy balance are foundations of good health, having a balanced appetite is important. There are times when it is perfectly normal to have less appetite, like during hot weather, having eaten more than usual earlier that day or the day before, or having a short-term sickness.
But having a decreased appetite over the long term can negatively impact your health. Loss of appetite can lead to unintentional weight loss, nutrient deficiencies, and certain medical conditions associated with those deficiencies.
Many factors can impact appetite. These include:
Every process in the body requires vitamins and minerals to function. This includes appetite signaling.
A common theory is that people crave foods that are rich in nutrients of which they are deficient. Evidence for this, however, is poor. In fact, some nutrient deficiencies may actually contribute to appetite loss, while others may contribute to increased cravings.
Deficiencies in the following vitamins and nutrients may contribute to appetite loss:
Next, we’ll discuss the research on nutrient and vitamin supplementation for boosting appetite.
Some supplements may help boost appetite. However, before starting new supplements, talk to your doctor to figure out if there are underlying issues that can impact your appetite levels. Your practitioner may measure blood levels of nutrients to determine if adding an supplement may be right for you.
Zinc is a mineral that, when present in excess and when deficient, can contribute to appetite changes. Early symptoms of zinc deficiency include a loss of appetite. Other symptoms of zinc deficiency may include hair loss, reduced taste and smell, low energy, and irritability. Those following a plant-based diet can be at a higher risk for deficiency.
Animal studies showed that a diet sufficient in zinc helped stimulate appetite after short-term zinc deprivation. Zinc can help regulate ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger and desire to eat.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of zinc for adults is 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women. Pregnancy and lactation increases the requirement slightly to about 11 to 12 mg.
Fish oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential fats in the human diet.
One study found that fish oil may increase appetite in healthy adults. Particularly in women, fish oil stimulated a 1.5 times increased desire to eat more after a meal. While there is a need for more studies to understand the mechanism of action, the results imply that the appetite stimulation effect of fish oil may come from its impact on the central nervous system. This effect can be promising for those with nutritional deficiencies and appetite issues.
On the other hand, another study reports high omega-3 intake is associated with higher satiety in those who are overweight and may be helpful in weight loss efforts when incorporated into a healthy weight management plan.
Overall, fish oil and omega-3 fats may support appetite regulation and weight management for individuals both desiring to increase appetite or those looking to manage healthy weight.
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, is essential for growth and energy metabolism. Deficiency in vitamin B1 can cause loss of appetite as well as nerve issues, weight loss, and confusion. Those with digestive issues and elderly individuals may experience deficiency due to issues with absorption.
The RDA for vitamin B1 is 1.1-1.4 mg for adults.
Vitamin B12 plays a major role in energy metabolism in the body. It comes in three active forms: methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin, and hydroxocobalamin.
Studies show that administration of vitamin B12 over several months can lead to an increase in appetite for those who are deficient in the vitamin. B12 deficiency is often associated with loss of appetite as well as fatigue and other symptoms.
Note that if you take a B12 supplement to treat this deficiency, you may experience an increase in appetite, but that’s really a restoration of a normal level. In general, for healthy people without appetite regulation issues, taking B12 neither increases nor decreases appetite.
The RDA for vitamin B12 is 2.4-2.8 mcg.
Before considering an appetite stimulant, talk to your doctor to run blood work and see if there are any nutrient deficiencies contributing to loss of appetite. These deficiencies can likely be addressed by dietary changes and supplementation. Other causes of appetite loss should also be considered and discussed with your healthcare provider.
Appetite stimulants are available as medications but would need to be approved by a medical doctor.
Most people have experienced at one point or another feeling hungrier as a result of increase in physical activity. However, studies show that the energy burned during exercise may be more than the energy intake from food afterwards as a result of increased appetite. While exercise can in fact increase appetite, each person is different and hormones can make the process a bit more complex.
Exercise is widely known for boosting mood. And appetite can be greatly affected by mood and neurological mechanisms, which can lead to both increases as well as decreases in appetite. There may be a connection of exercise supporting a normal appetite through the support of neurological functions.
Stress, if present, should also be addressed. Research supports the idea that cortisol response to stress plays a role in appetite regulation. Appetite is often suppressed during times of stress, while on the other hand appetite and eating often increases during the recovery following stress. Overall, stress has a negative impact on overall health and nutrient sufficiency.
If stress is a problem for you, try stress reduction techniques such as meditation, exercise, yoga, and deep breathing to stimulate calm and boost mood.
If you are looking to gain weight, there are plenty of natural ways to do so through supplementation and dietary changes. Be sure to check out our tips for additional vitamins and supplements that can help you gain weight.
Dietary changes to support healthy weight gain include:
Eating small meals more frequently can play a major role in supporting healthy weight gain. Keeping to relatively amounts of food at a time but increasing eating to up to 6 or more times daily can help you consume more overall. Also, take advantage of any times of the day when you feel most hungry to eat more during that time.
Keep to nutrient-rich foods. It can be tempting to turn to junk foods since these foods are often discussed as culprits of weight gain. However, these foods are low in nutrients and do not provide a healthy way to replenish the body.