I'm underweight. How do I stimulate my appetite?
November 8, 2013 10:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm depressed and anxious and dropping weight like crazy (my highest weight ever is 108, I'm probably 90-95 now). How can I eat more when I don't feel like eating?

This summer I watched my grandma starve to death in hospice (she refused a feeding tube and explicitly said many times that she wanted to die). My appetite has always been low, but since then it's been wrecked. I can go days without eating a full meal. It would be much worse if I lived alone.

I'm in therapy both for grief and for the underlying depression and anxiety I've had all my life. I take lamotrigine daily and clonazepam as needed (usually once/week). I've had bloodwork done and everything comes back normal. I have no chronic conditions that would affect appetite.

I'm lactose intolerant and spicy foods upset my stomach, but other than that I'm open to most anything. I have issues preparing food - I hate hate hate it and I would often rather eat nothing (seriously) then prepare food. So I would appreciate suggestions that require NO cooking skills. Exercise is also a problem due to fatigue and low motivation (plus asthma).
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Boil potatoes in a pot of well salted water until they're really soft and you can smoosh them with a fork. Melt butter on them. Very easy to prepare, very easy to eat, taste like basically nothing.

It's too bad you're lactose intolerant, because whole milk is great for this.

Would smoothies appeal to you? I got an immersion blender recently and it makes them really easy to prepare. Fruit (especially bananas), juice, maybe some protein powder if you want to try that.
posted by phunniemee at 10:12 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Make eating easy. My appetite has gone way down since I started Adderall, and while I'm happy to be losing weight I've found that I sometimes don't eat at all if I don't remember to and can rarely be bothered to cook. I've found that Clif bars and whole-fat yogurt are good staples to keep me going. A Clif bar is about 220 calories, and a cup of full-fat yogurt is about 150. Those won't get you all the way there, but they're easy to wolf down if you aren't feeling enthusiastic about food, and will add some easy calories to your diet. They're pretty healthy with lots of quality protein in them.

Buy a box of Clif bars and some tubs of yogurt. Keep the former in your bag and the latter in your fridge. If you realize that you haven't eaten much in a while, or that your calorie intake for the day is too low, just scarf down a bar or a bowl of yogurt and you'll at least have eaten something. No preparation required, cheap and healthy.

It's not a total solution but it might help.
posted by Scientist at 10:14 AM on November 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I was recovering from an eating disorder and could not convince myself to prepare food I did drink a lot of smoothies. Throw fruits and/or vegetables and yogurt in blender, buzz, pour into glass.

If you can bear preparing food once a week, make something like a big bowl of rice with tomatoes and cheese and put it in your fridge and eat that all week (the only part you cook is the rice). IMO variety is not important as long as you are eating.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:16 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ensure Plus. Ensure! Definitely drink a can or two of ensure a day. It's designed for this situation. Ensure Plus, I believe, is lactose-free.

Things that are high in fat will be your friend here. Avocados, peanut butter and nutella spread on bread, nuts... Bananas, for some reason, are a go-to for me during times like this. Granola is high in fat. Muffins. Fruit chips (like banana chips) or dried fruit.

Another trick I've used when I need to gain weight? Just eat whatever sounds like it might go down and stay down. Snickers bars are great for this, or substitute with the candy bar of your choice. Eat whatever it is that sounds mildly appealing until you can't stand to think of it anymore.

A whole rotisserie chicken from the supermarket, which you don't have to do anything with but eat. Protein is important. Protein bars are OK, but the protein powder idea is better - protein bars are kind of gross-tasting (in my opinion).

I would say yogurt or cottage cheese or any kind of cheese - or breve hot chocolates from Starbucks (they make them with cream, not with 2% milk!!) but your lactose intolerance might be a problem.

Sometimes it's not about nutrition, it's about calories - look for foods with a high caloric density and just have at it.

I'm sorry you're going through this.
posted by k8lin at 10:17 AM on November 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

you sound like you have similar eating issues to me. when i get in not-wanting-to-eat mode, i tend to focus on the seemingly tremendous effort of chewing, so a lot of these are mushy.

foods i can make myself eat when i have no appetite at all:
-hummus (you can just go buy it at the store; i am not suggesting you make it)
-drinkable yogurt/kefir (soy yogurt, for you?)
-smoothies (you can go somewhere and order one instead of making it)
-granola bars
-peanut butter toast

and when things are really bad, a chocolate (soy? other non-dairy?) milkshake is helpful.

i hope you feel better.
posted by millipede at 10:20 AM on November 8, 2013

First order of business, have you spoken to your health care team about your concerns? If yes, are they taking you seriously? What have they suggested. If you have not, please do that as soon as possible. Preferably by picking up the phone right now and calling one. Just one. You don't need to call them all. (It sounds like you might have, but it's not 100% clear. If you have brought this up and you are not happy with the answers you've gotten, print out your question here and very directly state that you are worried about your weight. Many health care professionals erroneously assume that every woman would prefer to just continue losing weight forever.)

Second. Focus on quality instead of quantity. So, peanut butter. You have my permission to just stick a spoon in the jar and lick the spoon until it is clean. If you can bear to put peanut butter on some crackers or apple slices, that's good too.

Another low prep food is overnight oatmeal. Put a cup of dry whole oats (not the instant) into a lidded plastic bowl, cover the oats with your milk analog of choice (I like rice milk, but maybe you prefer almond.) Give it a quick stir. Put it in the fridge. Now, the best part is that in the morning, when you are ready to eat it, all you have to do is find a spoon.

Fruit is your friend here. Bananas, oranges, apples, grapes. All very low prep. You can also microwave a potato or a sweet potato. Time varies by microwave and by potato shape/size, so I can't give you the run down on that.

Pie can be great for calories, and I'm thinking pumpkin in particular. Lots of fiber. Sure, it's a lot of sugar, but it's better than nothing. Breakfast cereal, again with your milk analog of choice. Pour the cereal, pour the liquid. Granola with yogurt or yogurt substitute. Stick granola bars in your bag and promise to eat one at a particular point in your day.

For a little more work, you might enjoy quesadillas. Get a tortilla warmed up in a skillet. Drop some shredded cheese in a nice even layer. Stick another tortilla on top when the cheese is a little melty. Flip it over and let it heat for another minute or so. Cut into wedges. Yummy with guacamole, which bonus, is lots of calories. If you get a whole cooked chicken, you can throw a few small pieces into your quesadilla.

If you get the chicken while it's hot, you can savor the skin, which is my favorite part. And like you, I get to eat all of it, because almost everyone else is super worried about the fat.
posted by bilabial at 10:22 AM on November 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you want to do smoothies, which is a good route as they are simple to prepare and you can make a big batch when you're feeling more motivated and save yourself a few servings in the fridge, there are easy ways to mix in things that will add calories. Full-fat yogurt, half-and-half, peanut butter, chocolate, protein powder, and even some vegetable oils are easy to blend into smoothies in such a way as to either make them delicious or else not alter the taste in a noticeable way.

Try not to go all-liquid, though. People generally need some bulk in their diet to keep their digestive systems working properly. You could make some simple salads (add shredded cheese and full-fat dressing for extra calories) to help with this. You can get your salads at the salad bar at the supermarket, or just buy things like bagged salad mix and baby spinach, things that are pretty much already a salad and don't require much additional preparation. This goes for the yogurt-and-clif-bars diet too, it doesn't provide much fiber or bulk. You can also blend dissolving fiber powder into smoothies or even water without altering the taste, texture, or appearance.
posted by Scientist at 10:22 AM on November 8, 2013

First of all, Holy shit and I'm sorry for what you've been through. When I get super anxious my appetite is the first thing to go, so I understand. When just the thought of putting food in my mouth -- any food -- makes me nauseous, I go for things that slide right down - hence all the rec's for smoothies and Ensure and that type of thing. Also hummus, I will eat it off my finger if I can't stomach the thought of bread/veg.

Keep your pantry stuffed with snacks - nuts, grapes (NO EFFORT, you don't even have to wash them if it's that bad,) things that you don't even have to peel or slice or whatever. (In re: no food prep I fully understand where you are coming from there - when I am lightheaded from eating 1000 calories over three days, making a smoothie is too much work. But handful of grapes and some cashews and a glass of water will keep you alive.)

I would also hit up a grocery with a nice prepared foods section - you can get bean salad type-things, already cut up chicken - the kinds of food that you can literally have two spoonfuls to keep from passing out and then put it back in the fridge.

And I hate to even say it, but marijuana is very very helpful in this type of situation. You are beyond just "not hungry" from what you describe. Talk to your doctor.
posted by polly_dactyl at 10:36 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I find that often when my anxiety is acting up, if I can get down a few saltine crackers, eating something properly is easier afterwards. If I haven't eaten enough lately, it gets harder to eat for some reason. Ensure and that sort of thing can also be useful, but I found the taste pretty revolting. Something to take the edge off the hunger usually makes dealing with food in general easier, long enough to get a meal, even if a small one. I have learned that I cannot skip meals, ever, because it starts a bad vicious cycle of not being able to eat, so I try to keep enough ready-made stuff that I can always eat something in a pinch.
posted by Sequence at 10:40 AM on November 8, 2013

So, peanut butter. You have my permission to just stick a spoon in the jar and lick the spoon until it is clean. -bilabial
You can add some sugar to that spoon, or some jelly and enjoy.
posted by Cranberry at 10:41 AM on November 8, 2013

I'm so sorry you are going through this. It's hard and I've been there. I too when under tremendous anxiety, lose my appetite. Smoothies are the way to go, Ensure, etc. When you're feeling up to it, you can move to mashed potatoes, Taco Bell frijoles, and other pureed things. All of these things are available ready-made so go ahead and give yourself permission just to go in and buy these things, rather than try to make them yourself.

There are smoothie kits in the grocery store that don't require blending. Just add juice and shake.

Now, have you looked into medical marijuana as something that can help stimulate your appetite?

For sure, discuss everything with your health care team and broach the subject. But I suspect that there's an eating disorder along with your anxiety and depression. It is one way of controling things in an out-of-control world.

Hugs to you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:48 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your medication might have a role with your appetite. I have a relative that took your main med for epilepsy and it totally wrecked her appetite. She would barely eat-and this is someone who always enjoyed food, loved to cook, and was good at it. You might want to talk to your doctor for a possible solution that direction.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:49 AM on November 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding Ruthless Bunny's suggestion of marijuana or perhaps talk to your doctor about some sort of appetite stimulant. Food is fuel and it sounds like you're not getting nearly enough.
posted by heavenstobetsy at 10:54 AM on November 8, 2013

I'm going to not-nth the marijuana suggestion, as it can be really not good for some people with certain kinds of anxiety issues. I say this as medical marijuana card-holder (who doesn't have anxiety issues).
posted by rtha at 11:04 AM on November 8, 2013

Please talk to your doctor about an appetite stimulant. IANAD. If you're already able to take one pill daily, you might be able to swing two. Marinol is a pill, and might help if the idea of smoking marijuana isn't appealing or legal where you are. Your doctor may have more ideas, such as off-label uses of other drugs.

You may benefit from setting your phone alarm to go off when it is "time to eat." If your body is not sending signal to your brain that you are hungry, you have to eat anyway. Having an alarm can get you the nutrition you need to function. Sometimes when this connection is broken, eating on a schedule plus an appetite stimulant can jump-start it again.

It's not a good idea to go on a liquid diet, but supplementing what you do eat with Ensure can help you take in precious calories.
posted by juniperesque at 11:05 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

In response to phunniemee's suggestion for potatoes: if you're in an area where lactose-free milk is carried, use that!
posted by telophase at 11:16 AM on November 8, 2013

I had a really similar thing happen a few years ago and I ended up around your weight. The best piece of advice I got was: buy pre-cooked things from the grocery store.

Best thing: full roasted chicken, like k8lin said. I ate chicken sandwiches (and sometimes just chicken) for weeks. Also, pudding cups, applesauce, pre-cooked rice and curries, soups. I just had zero energy to do anything more than open or heat something, so these things all work really well (plus, jello cups made me happy for whatever reason, and you really gotta take that happiness where it comes).

Also, do you have any friends that you can have "eating dates" with, or who can pick up groceries for you? This is a time when you can call in favours, and sometimes having someone around can help you get something down.

Finally, if you happen to live in Toronto, me-mail me. I would be happy to drop off a bag of "easy foods". Hugs.
posted by Paper rabies at 11:18 AM on November 8, 2013

Crackers! These days if you go to a supermarket with a "natural foods" section, or is just big enough to have a whole aisle for crackers and cookies, you can find a huge variety of crackers with lots of nutritious ingredients and different flavors and textures. The good thing about crackers is that even if they're a little bit stale they're still perfectly fine, so if you buy a bunch of different kinds and only slowly go through them you won't have much waste, if any. The one issue is that crackers are often pretty high in salt, so if you can pick up a couple low sodium varieties go for it.

Then you use them as your silverware and plates. Use them to scoop peanut butter or hummus or any other spread, use them as teeny plates for whatever else you have (coldcuts, fruits, pickles...), use them as dipping devices for mugs of hot broth or soup. And of course, just eat them plain.

I'm also going to shill a little bit for Amy's frozen foods. In particular, when I've been going off-course, I will scarf down one of the brown rice, black-eyed peas and veggies bowls, or one of their enchilada meals, and feel instantly like I have nutrients inside of me and can now handle functioning. Many of their products are perfectly good even after cooking in the microwave, refrigerating, and reheating, so you could do something like make one of the bowl meals, eat half of it, and come back to it later without the usual dismal results of normal frozen foods.

I do hope you can make progress soon.
posted by Mizu at 11:20 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not your clinical psychologist, and this is not treatment advice. Please tell your treatment providers about your weight loss and see if they have any ideas.

You live with someone else? Can that person help you by a) making a little extra of whatever they're eating and/or b) sitting down with you to eat? I think that may help take some of the burden off you to figure out the how/what/where/why of mealtime and also restore some normalcy. Remember that you cannot trust your body right now to give you appropriate signals around hunger or fullness, so as much external support as possible is best. Set an eating schedule, set alarms, get a friend to check in on you at a certain time of day. Think of food as medicine for your body.

Avoid salads and low calorie foods. You want the most energy per bite, so go for high-fat, high-protein foods: hummus, eggs, peanut butter, dark chocolate, avocados, bacon, protein bars (Quest is one great all-natural brand with a ton of protein and no artificial sweeteners), deli meats, and nuts. You can eat all this stuff, except the bacon, straight from the fridge. You can even buy pre-boiled eggs.
posted by aspen1984 at 11:33 AM on November 8, 2013

You can buy prepared hummus and have it with crackers or (pre-cut) veggies. To add extra good fats, you can mix in another tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil (and then maybe just a dash of salt if it tastes a little bland with the extra oil).

You could also try peanut butter or other nut spreads on crackers or veggies, or apples (love pb & apples, the combination of salty & sweet tastes like a candy bar but a bit healthier!).

Those are suggestions for things you can do today to get some quick and easy calories. Nthing all of the advice above to follow up with your dr. too.

Best of luck. Do check in again and let us know how you're doing.
posted by vignettist at 12:20 PM on November 8, 2013

I'm this way -- and am going to second Mizu's suggestion of Amy's frozen foods. Their soy Mac and Cheese is a go-to when I feel crappy, don't want to eat, and otherwise don't feel well.

I also get myself really good bread, eat peanut butter with a spoon, maybe half an avocado with something inside (balsamic vinegar, mayo, etc).

Sometimes, I walk into my usual grocery store and figure out what looks okay to me. It doesn't have to make me hungry, but I can usually find something I'm willing to eat.

One thing I struggle with is eating fatty or fried foods when I'm not eating a lot, it makes me nauseous and even less hungry. Perhaps you might need to strike a balance like I do.

If you have a Trader Joe's near you, they have an excellent selection of frozen foods and snacks.

Please take care of yourself! Your doctors (should) want to know that you're having a loss of appetite.
posted by mamabear at 12:54 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

things that helped when I have been like this, like some others here: frozen chicken nuggets, peanut butter off the spoon, roasted whole chickens.

But also yes talk to your doctors to see if the medication might be causing this or contributing.
posted by sweetkid at 1:03 PM on November 8, 2013

Lactose-free meal supplement drinks and protein bars. Soup in a can. Nut milks and coconut milk. Nut-milk egg nog (or just crack a raw egg into a smoothie or shake). Vegetable juice. Vegetable supplement powder. Rice. Ovaltine. Jello. Pasta from a can.

These are all easy to prepare and easy to get into your stomach. I find drinking with a straw helps if I'm feeling really resistant to eating, because I barely even have to open my mouth.

You can add an oil such as coconut or olive to any of these in order to increase their caloric value without increasing their difficulty to eat or prepare. Fiber supplements will add bulk.

Use paper dishes to avoid being deterred from eating by the thought of cleanup.

Take your vitamins and whenever the urge to eat anything in particular strikes you, do it.

One more very embarassing tip: if I'm struggling with my eating and I have a deep need to self-soothe, room temperature or warm liquid (egg nog for me), drunk out of a baby bottle whose nipple has been given a larger hole, while lying down and wrapped in a blanket cocoon, still helps enormously. If you can get over feeling ridiculous, it might do something for you.
posted by windykites at 1:03 PM on November 8, 2013

Oh, I forgot hot cereal. Like instant oatmeal.
posted by windykites at 1:08 PM on November 8, 2013

In re. grass: it exacerbated my anxiety when I was a teenager who occasionally toked. As a grown-up with rheumatism-type issues with a pain specialist suggesting grass: not so prone to anxiety, now. YMMV...

Medication side effects left me with no appetite for food for a while unless it was some sort of highly processed garbage. I mitigated this a bit by baking big batches of 'breakfast cookies' with mostly not too terrible-for-you ingredients and keeping my freezer stocked. It's easy to say yes to a cookie. At the time I was too overwhelmed to do this all myself, and I went to my parents' house to use their multiple non-rusty cookie sheets and reliable dishwasher (and incidental child care) and that made it a lot easier.
posted by kmennie at 1:16 PM on November 8, 2013

MY FRIEND finds that marijuana, which can be vaporized or eaten to minimize or avoid asthma complications, is an excellent appetite stimulant.
posted by klangklangston at 1:24 PM on November 8, 2013

I always find it easier to eat more when I am watching a movie or tv. It may not help with the appetite issue but it does take your mind off eating and allows you to graze on popcorn, crackers and peanut butter, nuts, grapes, veggies and dip, and other snack-y but filling things.

Oh, and never underestimate the utility of frozen blueberry, cinnamon, or chocolate chip waffles. Super fast and tasty with melted margarine and/or jam.
posted by donut_princess at 1:34 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, yes, eating while distracted. This has helped me too, as it takes the pressure off "NOW I AM EATING" and makes it more of "YAY BOOK oh hey I have these crackers too? eh, might as well." If this works for you, you can also make a ritual of it, and say there is a time when you watch an episode of Awesome TV Show, which also happens to also be the time you eat peanut butter and oatmeal or whatever. And do those things together every day, thus making eating into a habit.
posted by epanalepsis at 1:51 PM on November 8, 2013

I don't know how alcohol might interact with your medication or affect your general mood but heavy ales a lot of calories. I discovered Chimay during the summer of 2006 and was soooooo fat by Xmas.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:44 PM on November 8, 2013

Fats are your friend here, because they have twice as many calories per gram as protein or carbs. Take a shot of olive oil. I'm totally serious. 1.5 fluid oz of olive oil is 340 calories.

Or buy some grass-fed butter and just eat chunks of it straight. 100 calories per tablespoon. If you're up to buttering a slice of bread, do that, except think of it more like making a bread and butter sandwich, with slices of butter.

Or, if you don't like the oily feeling that oil and butter can leave in your mouth, eat an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter slathered on every bite---that's like 100 calories from the apple and 900 from the peanut butter. The crispness of the apple really covers up the texture of the peanut butter.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:14 PM on November 8, 2013

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