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Slideshow: What helps when it’s hard to eat

Eating when you don't feel well

If you aren't feeling well, the last thing you may want to do is eat. The trouble is, you need good nutrition to help your body recover. You may not feel like eating because you lack motivation to prepare food, feel nauseous, or have a tender mouth that hurts when you chew or swallow. Being depressed, and certain medicines, can also influence your desire to eat. If you're experiencing any of these problems, there are solutions. Read on for other strategies that can help get your appetite back on track.

Bland may be best

The smell of food can be a turn-off if you feel nauseous or have been vomiting. Choose bland foods to avoid feeling queasy with spicy or strong-smelling foods. Good choices include:

  • Crackers
  • Toast
  • Soft fruits, like grapes or banana
  • Yoghurt or rice pudding
  • Rice.

If your appetite is poor it's important to make sure you don't get dehydrated, so aim for a drink every 2 hours. Tea, coffee, water, juice and soup all help you to keep hydrated. Eat smaller meals frequently throughout the day.

Chew on gum

Is your dry mouth due to dehydration? Not everyone feels thirsty when they're dehydrated, so if it is a couple of hours since your last drink, perhaps have one now. Feeling parched can make it harder to chew and swallow food. But if you're well hydrated, your dry mouth might be due to your health condition, or medications. A dry mouth isn't healthy for your teeth, either, so between meals help to keep the saliva flowing and your mouth moist by:

  • Chewing on sugarless gum
  • Sucking on sugar-free mints, pastilles or boiled sweets
  • Sipping water, or sugar-free drinks.

If your health condition stops you from keeping your mouth moist seek medical or dental advice as there are sprays, pastilles and tablets that can help manage this.

Go soft

A sore mouth, jaw or tongue can put you off eating. Causes include tooth trouble, poorly fitting false teeth, mouth ulcers or sometimes the side effects of radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Go easy on your mouth by avoiding salty, spicy food like crisps or curry. Choose soft food over hard. To get all the nutrients you need, try: 

  • Casseroles, meals with sauces
  • Soup with soft, pureed vegetables
  • Tinned fruits like peaches and pears, stewed apples or soft fruits with yoghurt.

If your teeth are the problem, make an appointment to get them checked or to have your dentures refitted.

Eat sweet

If you're struggling to eat, it is one time you can get your just desserts! Smoothies and milkshakes are easy on the mouth if you have trouble chewing or swallowing. Puddings, trifles, custard and yoghurt are other easy options.

If you need to put on weight after a prolonged illness, calories are your goal. To help you recover you can add a knob of butter or margarine to mashed potato, top your tinned fruit with cream, add mayonnaise to sandwich fillings, and have a small cake or pastry between meals to boost your daily energy intake.

Eat a rainbow

Medication, tooth trouble, radiotherapy and ageing can dull your sense of taste. Other causes can include surgery, strokes and smoking. Your taste is closely tied to your sense of smell, so you may also notice food doesn't taste as good if you have a cold, cough or ear infection that can leave you feeling bunged up. Make up for the lack of flavour by:     

  • Making food look appetising
  • Create a rainbow plate of different colours
  • Pick a variety of foods with different textures
  • Sharing a meal with friends or family for social benefits.

Spice it up

When your sense of taste is off, it's tempting to add fat, salt or sugar to pep up food and make it more appetising. There are some other suggestions to pump up the flavour:  

  • Try flavouring food with herbs and spices
  • Invigorate bland vegetables with a sprinkle of low-fat cheese, balsamic vinegar or some roasted nuts.

Tiny bites

It's simple but effective. If you're having trouble navigating hard or chewy food, just think smaller.

Proect your mouth from being hurt or irritated by:

  • Chopping tough or crunchy foods into small bite-sized pieces
  • Avoiding hard, brittle, spicy, sour, acidic or over-salted foods
  • Avoiding food that's too hot or too cold
  • Choosing softer options – swap granola for porridge, fried meats for a casserole.

Focus on fluids

Whether it's illness, cancer treatment or morning sickness, vomiting can leave you dehydrated. You have to replace the fluids you've lost. Drinking through a straw may help you feel less queasy, and make drinks taste better.

You may want to:

  • Vary your drinks, choosing the ones you prefer to help you achieve your goal
  • Try sports drinks, which can partly replace nutrients and electrolytes
  • Try fruit juice and ginger ale – some research suggests ginger helps soothe nausea
  • Avoid alcohol, especially with some types of medicine.

Seek help

Psychological problems like depression and anxiety can lead to a loss of appetite. It's common to have an upset stomach if you're under stress. It's also common for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one to stop eating properly. It's important to remember that eating healthy food will help you on the road to recovery. Also try:

  • Keeping a diary of what you eat and drink in a week
  • Noting down your moods over the week.

Don't be afraid to get help and talk to your doctor about how you feel.

When illness keeps you from eating well

Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on April 10, 2017

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