Mixed Signals: Hungry But Without Desire To Eat

By: Tanisha Herrin

Updated November 16, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Many people struggle with lack of appetite but still want to eat. The symptoms of feeling this way without an appetite can vary in intensity and duration, occasionally lasting for only a few moments or sometimes spanning longer, more problematic stretches of time. In the latter case, losing your appetite and still being hungry for long periods can lead to physical, emotional, and mental health issues. It's important to explore potential causes of appetite loss and effects so you can learn how to sustain a healthy lifestyle and take good care of yourself.

A Common Cause For Appetite Loss: Anxiety

Multiple disorders that fall under the umbrella of anxiety are caused by persistent stress. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobias, panic disorders, and many others. Anxiety is characterized by general apprehension, worrying, or nervousness, it can manifest in many different ways including appetite loss.

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 and diarrhea.

If appetite loss behaviors and physical effects are short-lived, then you don't need to worry about them. However, if they persist, malnutrition, dehydration and an increased risk of death become very real concerns. Finding ways to cope with or reduce anxiety can possibly help you to retrieve your appetite, and help symptoms of anxiety.

Ten Other Possible Causes For Losing A Desire To Eat

There is a reason for this feeling. Below, you'll find some of the most common reasons for this problem.
  1. 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 called 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 grossly underweight. This particular condition is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and loss of appetite, but still may feel hungry.
  2. Dehydration - Being dehydrated is more than being thirsty. The need for water/fluids can lead to headaches, nausea, tiredness, confusion, and a lack of appetite, but still hungry. Some people may notice these symptoms during the summer months. When we lose more water through sweat, our body needs food though we haven't an appetite, which keeps us from eating as regularly as we should.

  3. Short-term stress - Sometimes, during particularly stressful periods of your life, you might lose your appetite, or you might experience the opposite and find yourself binge eating. Stressful situations prompt your body to release a mixture of hormones, including adrenaline. This triggers your fight-or-flight response, in which your body raises your heart rate, increases breathing, and sends blood to your muscles. It also slows down digestion because it's not 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 threaten your wellbeing.

  4. Depression - We all feel sad at times. Depression, or prolonged and severe sadness, can lead to a persistent "hungry but lack of appetite" feeling. Depression is a serious illness, so if you are also constantly feeling low, you should speak with your doctor as soon as possible. It is worth pointing out that, in the case of depression, individuals may also experience the opposite--increased cravings and weight gain.

  5. Viral infection - Having a bout of the cold or flu can leave you hungry but without appetite. A stuffy nose caused by a cold, for example, decreases your sense of smell and can make food seem less appealing to you. Also, the fatigue that often accompanies the flu can make you feel like you don't have energy to eat. Hepatitis, a viral infection of the liver, is another reason for this feeling.

  6. 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 is nausea or morning sickness (so-called because it's most prevalent in the morning, though in reality it can occur at any time). Frequent snacking, eating small meals, and having something dry (like crackers) to nibble on can help.

  7. Age - Several factors can lead to this feeling as we age. This is called anorexia of aging, and its causes include slowed digestion, less acute senses of smell and taste, dental health issues, and hormonal changes. Be sure to contact a healthcare provider who specializes in geriatric medicine if an elderly person seems to lose appetite.

  8. Medication - One of the first things you should 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. If you are on medication and experience this feeling, raise the concern with your healthcare provider, even if this was not originally mentioned as one of the possible side effects.

  9. Cancer - People who undergo radiation therapy and chemotherapy for cancer may find that they are left with without an appetite at a time when nutrition is of the utmost importance. That's because cancer therapies can leave you feeling nauseous or even affect how foods smell and taste to you. 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 an appetite.

  10. Anemia - Your red blood cells carry oxygen around your body, and they're used in the process of respiration, turning your food into energy to support other body processes. Anemia, a condition where you have a low count of healthy red blood cells, can leave you feeling weak, tired, and lose appetite. It can be combated with a diet rich in iron and vitamin B12 or by taking supplements which contain them.

What Can You Do About Your Hunger Concerns?

Many things can impact your feelings of hunger or appetite. While it's important to follow your body's cues, sometimes it's important to get nutrients, even if you have to force yourself to eat. You might not feel like eating but your body needs the nutrients. Here are some tips:
  • Make a timeline or establish a journal to help pinpoint underlying reasons for not feeling hungry. Note meals you tend to skip and situations that may contribute to your decision not to eat.
  • Eat frequent small portions and diversify your nutrition options with healthy snacks even when you don't have an appetite.
  • 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, and therefore might increase chances that you are hungry.
  • 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.
  • Seek professional help through therapy or counseling.

Tackle Issues With Mental Health Professionals

You may not realize that underlying issues, such as situations causing stress or anxiety, may be contributing to this feeling. 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 by online support by reading the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

"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."

Find An Online Therapist Who Can Help With Your Anxiety
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"I've worked with Alyson for 1 month and it was my first time working with a therapist. From when I started, I feel so much better. I was dealing with frustrations in my relationship and I also was constantly stressed and anxious. Alyson showed me ways to communicate better in my relationship and how to work at them. She also helped me with stress management tactics and now I feel really good about how to handle my stress. I feel much less anxious now. Overall I am in a much happier place and obstacles feel like merely obstacles because there's stress-free ways to tackle life problems. Thank you so much, Alyson!"

Conclusion

There are plenty of reasons why you may experience hunger without having an appetite, and proper nutrition is important when dealing with issues affecting your wellbeing. You do not have to struggle when there are productive ways to get your appetite back. Take the first step today.


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