As you get older, you may start to lose weight, either through illness or loss of appetite. Maintaining a healthy body weight is important, and there are steps you can take to gain weight healthily.
If you're underweight or have lost weight suddenly or for no obvious reason, see your GP to ensure there is no underlying medical cause for this weight loss.
Even if there's nothing wrong with your health it's quite common for older people to lose their appetite. You may be underweight simply because you're not eating enough and your diet doesn't give you sufficient energy or calories.
Being underweight can be especially serious for older people. It increases your risk of health problems, including bone fracture if you fall. It weakens your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to infections, and it increases your risk of being deficient in important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
However, you can take steps to improve your diet and get the energy and nutrients you need.
How to eat if you've lost your appetite
As we get older, it is common for our appetite to get smaller and we may not feel like eating.
If you're underweight and your appetite has decreased, it's still important to get all the energy and nutrients that your body needs.
There are 3 ways to do this:
- Switch to smaller meals and frequent snacks, so that you're not struggling to eat 3 large meals a day.
- Increase your calorie intake by eating foods like milky puddings and cheesy main courses, or vegetarian or vegan alternatives.
- Avoid filling up on foods that are high in saturated fat or sugars, such as sugary fizzy drinks, cakes and biscuits.
Tips to boost your calorie intake
Try these healthy yet still high-energy meal and snack ideas:
- porridge made with whole (full-fat) milk, with fruit or dried fruit on top
- sardines on toast
- peanut butter on toast
- eggs on toast
- soups with pulses, pasta or meats
- cottage/shepherd's pie
- beans on toast with cheese sprinkled on top
- milky drinks as a bedtime snack
- unsalted nuts
Add more calories from healthier foods to your diet to help you gain weight:
- sprinkle grated cheese on savoury dishes
- add cheese or milk to soups
- add ground or whole nuts, nut butter or seeds to dishes
- add soya or pea protein powder to meals and drinks
- spread avocado on toast for a high-energy and healthy snack
- pour white sauce (made with butter, flour and milk) on fish or vegetables
- replace 1 cup of tea or coffee each day with a cup of warm full-fat milk or a dairy-free alternative such as soya milk
- put milk, butter or dairy-free spread into mashed potato
Eat with friends and family
If you're struggling to be interested in food or you've lost the motivation to eat, try to eat with friends or family as often as possible. Lunch clubs are also a great way to make mealtimes more social.
Have foods that are easy to prepare
If you find it difficult to prepare foods, try the following tips:
- Choose ready meals with less salt. It can be hard to find a ready meal that is nutritionally balanced. To find out how to choose a healthy meal, read about food labels.
- Keep some tinned and dried fruit at home. It's an alternative to fresh fruit, needs no preparation and can count towards your 5 A Day. Tinned fruit is also easy to eat if you have dental problems.
- Keep some frozen and tinned vegetables at home. They're easy to prepare and can count towards your 5 A Day.
- Buy puddings and snacks that come in individual pots, such as yoghurt and rice puddings.
- Replace or supplement a meal with a high-calorie drink.
Improve your appetite with exercise
Physical activity is particularly important for older people. It can help you stay healthy, mobile and independent.
Being active helps keep your heart healthy and lowers your risk of heart disease and stroke – even if you're underweight. You may also feel hungrier the more active you are.
To find out how much physical activity is recommended and what counts as activity, see:
- physical activity guidelines for adults, if you're under 65
- physical activity guidelines for older adults, if you're 65 or over
The amount of physical activity you should do may be different from other people your age if you're underweight, have mobility problems or a disability. Your GP or practice nurse can advise you about this.
Have your meals delivered
If you struggle to cook for yourself or to shop for food, consider getting outside help.
You may be entitled to have hot and frozen ready-made meals delivered to your home (often called meals on wheels), which is provided by your local council's social services. There is usually a charge for the service.
Find out more about getting meals at home from GOV.UK.