Why Am I Getting Mixed Signals: Hungry But No Appetite

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated April 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some people experience a lack or loss of appetite yet still feel the urge to eat food. The sensation of feeling hungry but not having enough of an appetite to eat can vary in intensity and duration. Occasionally, it may last for only a few moments but can sometimes span for longer periods, causing the individual to start to feel sick. Loss of appetite paired with hunger pangs for long periods can lead to physical, emotional, and mental health issues. It can be important to explore potential causes of appetite loss and its effects so you can learn how to sustain a healthy lifestyle and take proper care of yourself.

Why am I not hungry?

While some of its most recognized symptoms are linked to mood or emotions, anxiety can also manifest as physical symptoms. These include sweating, rapid heart rate, sleep abnormalities, and appetite loss. Anxiety disorders can also cause gastric distress that results in a myriad of digestive issues, including nausea, upset stomach, and diarrhea.

If your appetite loss and its physical effects are short-lived, you may not need to worry about them. However, if they persist, malnutrition, dehydration, and an increased risk of other serious concerns can become real possibilities.

Finding ways to cope with or reduce anxiety can possibly help you to retrieve your appetite and assist with symptoms of anxiety.

10 possible causes for loss of appetite and nausea

There may be a specific reason you’re experiencing this feeling, including certain psychological or medical conditions. Below, you'll find some of the most common explanations for this problem.

Anorexia nervosa

Medically speaking, loss of appetite is regarded as anorexia, regardless of the reason behind it. What has become common, however, is for people to use the term anorexia when they exclusively mean the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is caused by a distorted body image in which the affected person sees themselves as overweight even when, in fact, they may be extremely underweight. Eating disorders can be dangerous, but are treatable if the individual seeks help. 

Dehydration

Being dehydrated means more than simply being thirsty. The need for water and fluids can lead to headaches, nausea, tiredness, confusion, and a lack of appetite, but while still feeling hungry. Some people may notice these symptoms more often during the summer months. When we lose more water through sweat, our body needs food intake even if we don’t have an appetite, which can keep us from eating as regularly as we should.

Short-term stress

Sometimes, during particularly stressful periods of your life, you might lose your appetite, or you may experience the opposite and find yourself binge eating. Stressful situations can prompt your body to release a mixture of hormones, including adrenaline. This can trigger your fight-or-flight response in which your body raises your heart rate, increases your breathing, and sends more blood to your muscles. It also can slow down digestion because digestion may not be immediately important for survival. If exposed to stress for extended time periods, your body may be at risk for developing emotional and physical complications that can threaten your well-being.

Depression

Depression, or prolonged and severe sadness, can lead to a persistent "hungry but lack of appetite" feeling. Depression can be a serious illness, so if you are consistently feeling down, it can be vital to speak with your doctor as soon as possible. It is also worth pointing out that, in the case of depression, individuals may also experience the opposite— increased cravings and weight gain.

Viral infection

It can be normal for certain illnesses to cause decreased appetite. Getting sick with a bout of the cold or flu can leave you feeling hungry but lacking an appetite. A stuffy nose caused by a cold, for example, can decrease your sense of smell and make food seem less appealing to you.

Pregnancy

We tend to associate cravings with pregnancy. However, many pregnant women don't have as much of an appetite but still feel hungry, especially during their first trimester. The culprit could likely be nausea or morning sickness (so-called because it's most prevalent in the morning, though in reality, it can occur at any time and result in losing desire to eat).

Age

Several factors can lead to this feeling as we age, also known as anorexia of aging. Its causes can include slowed digestion, a less acute sense of smell and taste, dental health issues, and hormonal changes. It can be important to contact a healthcare provider who specializes in geriatric medicine if an elderly person seems to lose their appetite.

Medication

When confronted with this situation, one of the first things you can do is review any medications you might be taking. Some medications may cause a decrease in appetite. These include medications for migraines, depression, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), some cancers, Parkinson's disease, and high blood pressure.

Cancer

People who undergo radiation therapy and chemotherapy for cancer may find that these treatments can suppress appetite at a time when nutrition is of the utmost importance. That's because cancer therapies can leave you feeling nauseous and sick, or even affect how foods smell and taste. Depending on the type of cancer, some people also experience slower metabolism, a false sense of fullness, dry mouth, and a host of other conditions which can cause them to lose their appetite.

Anemia

Your red blood cells carry oxygen around your body, and they're used in the process of respiration and turning your food into energy to support other body processes. Anemia is a condition where you have a low count of healthy red blood cells. It can leave you feeling weak, tired, and without an appetite. Anemia can be combated with a diet rich in iron and vitamin B12 or by taking supplements that contain them.

Are symptoms of anxiety or depression affecting your life?

Navigating change in hunger levels or nausea

Hungry but no appetite? Here are things you can try:

  • Seek professional help through therapy or counseling.
  • Eat frequent small meals and diversify your nutrition options with healthy snacks even when you don't have an appetite. Frequent meals can be easier to eat, and may also help to improve appetite over time.
  • Limit fluids during meals, as they can make you feel full before you've consumed sufficient food calories.
  • Include foods of various colors and textures to make your meals more appealing, which can stimulate the appetite.
  • Exercise or take part in other productive forms of physical activity.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about using multivitamins or liquid supplements to get the nutrients you need.
  • Talk to your general care physician to schedule a medical evaluation.

Online therapy with BetterHelp for anxiety, depression, or eating disorders

Feeling hungry but experiencing a loss of appetite simultaneously can be frustrating. This can be especially true when you don’t know the root cause of the issue. If you’ve been struggling to cope with these feelings on your own, it may be time to reach out to a professional for support. You can get started by connecting with a licensed therapist through BetterHelp, an online counseling platform. 

If you believe that mental health concerns may be behind your loss of appetite, such as an eating disorder or other mental health condition, consider talking to a certified professional through BetterHelp.

The effectiveness of online therapy 

Online therapy can be just as, if not more, effective as in-person therapy in treating a wide array of mental health issues. Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven effective in treating the symptoms of anxiety. CBT is a therapeutic framework that teaches people to reframe their negative thoughts into more positive manners of thinking.

BetterHelp therapist reviews

You may not realize that underlying issues, such as situations causing stress or anxiety, may be contributing to this unique physical feeling. When you feel ready, you can discuss your concerns with a counselor who understands your needs and wants and has the expertise to help you accomplish healthier daily habits. Learn how others have been helped through online support by reading the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Ingrid Johnson, MA, LPC, NCC

"Ingrid has been incredible! She is so supportive and encouraging of my healthy behaviors and really helps me problem solve when I have a particular problem. I never feel judged, it's always a safe space to talk about how I'm feeling. Thanks, Ingrid; it's fantastic to have the extra support I need right now."

Takeaway

There are plenty of reasons why you may be experiencing hunger along with poor appetite. Proper nutrition can be important when dealing with issues affecting your well-being, as can paying close attention to your mental health. If you’d like to uncover potential causes of your symptoms and discuss them further, an online therapist could be a viable resource. With their assistance, you may be able to move forward feeling both physically and mentally healthier.
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