What Causes Loss Of Appetite In Teens?

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Loss of appetite in teens isn’t uncommon. A teenager undergoes several physical, psychological, and social changes during adolescence that can cause a teenager to lose interest in food. Temporary loss of appetite is mostly benign and seldom a cause for concern. However, if a teen has chronic appetite problems, you can’t undermine the possibility of an underlying health condition.

Improper eating patterns can lead to nutritional deficiencies, which can cause several chronic health issues to emerge over time (1). Keep reading as we tell you more about appetite loss in teenagers, its possible causes, and more.

When Is Loss Of Appetite A Concern In Teens?

Persistent low mood along with appetite loss may be concerning

Image: Shutterstock

It is not uncommon for teens to lose interest in food momentarily. Dr. Lilian Ablan Roldan, MD, a pediatrician from Brooklyn, New York, says, “Children and teenagers occasionally change their eating habits, which can be concerning for their families. Rapid height growth, high levels of physical activity, and hectic lifestyles can make it difficult for a young person to consume an adequate amount of food.

However, loss of appetite, along with the following symptoms, could be a cause of concern (2).

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent low mood or sadness with frequent tearfulness
  • Irritable and intolerant behavior
  • Little or no enjoyment of things that were interesting at some point
  • Extreme tiredness and social isolation
  • Unusual secrecy about eating habits
  • Being anxious, upset, or guilty while eating

What Are The Possible Causes Of Loss of Appetite In Teens?

Psychological causes

  1. Stress: The impact of stress on unhealthy eating may begin as early as the age of eight to nine years (3). Peer pressure, the pressure of keeping up with academics and sports, learning disabilities, problems at school, death or loss of a loved one, divorce of parents, or an unhealthy home atmosphere can cause stress in a teen’s life.
  1. Anxiety and depression: Some adolescents exhibit resilience to extreme levels of stress. However, it may lead to anxiety and depression in some teens (4). Appetite changes are common among teens experiencing anxiety and depression. The teen is also likely to display changes in sleeping patterns, a lack of interest in attending school or participating in their favorite activities or not socializing with friends, etc.
  1. Eating disorders: According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, anorexia nervosa and bulimia are two eating disorders that are on the rise (5). Both conditions lead to extreme weight loss and malnutrition due to nutritional deficiencies. These eating disorders could develop due to psychological reasons like depression or an “extreme desire to look slim.” The latter is more commonly seen in girls.
Quick fact
Some teens experience avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, where they avoid eating because they don’t like the food’s smell, taste, texture, or color. However, such children are not afraid of weight gain and don’t have a negative body image (21).
Teens may experience loss of appetite due to eating disorders

Image: iStock

Medical Causes

  1. Infections: Bacterial, viral, and fungal infections such as gastroenteritis or colitis can lead to temporary loss of appetite. The loss of appetite in such cases is largely benign, and the appetite resumes as soon as the treatment is initiated (6). However, consult a doctor if your teen’s appetite does not improve even after the infection is treated.
  1. Chronic health issues: Chronic health conditions such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, or hormonal conditions such as Addison’s disease could lead to a loss of appetite in teens (7). Food allergies and intolerances or sensitivities are other chronic issues that could cause a loss of appetite in some adolescents.
  1. Medications: Loss of appetite is a common side-effect of many medications, such as antibiotics. Sometimes the loss of appetite is caused by constipation or diarrhea caused by these medicines. Medications prescribed for conditions such as autism and ADHD are also associated with decreased or loss of appetite. Other causes include pain, fatigue, and weakness, or weight loss caused by the treatment of a medical condition such as cancer (8) (9) (10).
  1. Substance abuse: The World Health Organization describes substance abuse as the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances. These substances are alcohol and illicit drugs (11). Prolonged use of such substances is known to cause loss of appetite due to side-effects. Moreover, loss of appetite in such cases also happens due to the substance dependence at large (12).
Substance abuse may cause loss of appetite in teens

Image: iStock

By understanding the possible cause for loss of appetite, you can help your teen improve their appetite.

How To Improve Your Teen’s Appetite?

You can help your teen tackle the potential cause or causes of loss of appetite. Dr. Roldan adds, “Maintaining modest but nutritious portions can help a young person avoid feeling overwhelmed by food. If your child cannot finish the meal, completing the carbohydrate and protein portions of the meal may be more important than the vegetables at this time. Avoid labeling foods as healthy or unhealthy; all foods can be healthy depending on the individual’s needs. There are no such things as bad foods.

Below are some steps that you could follow.

  1. Communication: Acknowledge your teen’s concerns and talk to empathize with them. It will give them the motivation to share their issues with you. If your teen still isn’t sharing much with you, then do not hesitate to go to a doctor or psychologist  (13). Unless the right cause is identified, the teen’s diet might not improve.
  1. Dietary changes: You can also try some dietary changes. While you plan their meal plan, split three large meals into five to six smaller meals with snacks. You can consider serving them high calorie, nutrient-dense options like homemade fruit smoothies, protein drinks, and multigrain porridges or pancakes. Ensure they do not skip meals and are staying away from junk foods like soda, high-sugar high-fat processed foods like chips, finger chips, etc. (14). Also, eat together as a family to build a positive atmosphere for your teen. Serve foods that your teen enjoys.
Quick tip
Make eating a pleasurable activity for teenagers. Use background music and beautiful settings to create a more appealing and attractive eating environment (14).
  1. Exercise: Regular exercise could potentially help stimulate appetite. Exercise helps burn calories, which is a physiological process for the development of hunger. . It also releases endorphins, a feel-good hormone that might help in hunger stimulation. A bonus benefit of exercise is that it can help cope with depression (15) (16). Therefore, encourage your teen to exercise. If exercise seems boring, then suggest that they play their favorite outdoor sport like basketball, badminton, tennis or swimming, etc.
Exercise could help stimulate appetite in teens

Image: iStock

  1. Educate about healthy weight: Speak with the teen about the possible complications that could arise due to poor appetite. This method can be helpful in cases where the loss of appetite is due to eating disorders and self-imposed restrictions on food. Parents can consider taking the support of professionals who could counsel your teen and help them know about eating right. A counselor can also help a teenager understand the difference between healthy weight and an imaginary desirable size figure.
  1. Awareness about health risks: Some teenagers might also use products such as laxatives, diuretics, and diet pills to lose weight and curb appetite. These products could cause loss of appetite while also leading to harmful effects and irreversible health risks. Therefore, teenagers must be made aware of these risks and their negative effects.

Parental intervention, along with medical help, can help in timely diagnosis and treatment of the underlying cause of loss of appetite.

How To Treat Loss Of Appetite In Teens?

Treatment of loss of appetite largely depends upon its cause. Below are some possible treatments that could be decided upon consultation with a doctor.

  1. Talking therapies: If loss of appetite is due to depression or anxiety or any other psychological issue, then talking therapies might be prescribed by the doctor. This helps the teen to vent out, which relaxes the emotions and could possibly stimulate hunger. The doctor might also prescribe some antidepressants, too, in severe cases (17).
  1. Nutritional supplements: Nutritional supplements help in cases where the loss of appetite is due to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Some of the common nutritional supplements used are vitamin B complex, zinc, thiamine, and fish oil. Always consult a doctor before giving any nutritional supplement to your teen.
Quick fact
Children who have anemia may experience poor appetite and lethargy. Therefore, it is important for them to consume enough iron-rich foods (22).
Nutritional supplements can help resolve vitamin and mineral deficiencies

Image: iStock

  1. Appetite stimulants: In cases where the loss of appetite is due to a chronic ailment, then the doctor might suggest appetite stimulants, which increase appetite. The three major drugs that are currently approved by the FDA are megestrol acetate, oxandrolone, and dronabinol (18). However, their use in teens needs to be discussed with a doctor.
  1. Home remedies: Parents can also consider a few home remedies. You may try some appetite-boosting foods such as cardamom, herbal teas, cayenne pepper, cloves, fennel, garlic, ginger, ginseng, and green tea. However, there is limited scientific consensus on the efficacy of these home remedies. In case your teen is on medications, then you must consult a doctor before trying any home remedies.

Immediate medical assistance is suggested when the loss of appetite is due to substance abuse, eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia or depression. Chronic loss of appetite could lead to health complications depending upon the cause and its severity.

Possible Health Risks Of Loss Of Appetite In Teens

Loss of appetite usually resolves without long-term health concerns. However, if it continues for a prolonged time, then it can have serious health risks or complications, as mentioned below (19) (20).

  • Malnutrition impacting the growth and development of the teen
  • Poor weight in accordance with the height
  • Extreme fatigue impacting day to day activities
  • Hormonal imbalance leading to delay in puberty and disturbed menses in girls
  • Impaired bone mass
  • Muscle wasting
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • A general ill feeling

The significant hormonal, physical, emotional, and psychological changes of adolescence cause many changes and may lead to loss of appetite in teens. It is not uncommon and mostly does not arise from something serious. However, if you notice unexplained or prolonged weight loss, persistent depression, or unusual isolation, you must talk to a healthcare provider. It is essential to determine the underlying cause of the disease to find treatment for the same. The doctor may prescribe therapy or medications to deal with the condition.

Infographic: How To Improve Your Teen’s Appetite?

As a parent, it can be worrying when your teenager has a poor appetite, as it can lead to nutrition deficiencies and weight loss, which can negatively affect their overall health and well-being. Hence the infographic provides effective strategies to help improve your teenager’s appetite and ensure they get the proper nutrition.

dealing with poor appetite in teens [infographic]
Illustration: MomJunction Design Team


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
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9. Patra S et al., Atomoxetine for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents with autism: A systematic review and meta-analysis.; National Center For Biotechnology Information
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13. Tips for Communicating With Your Teen; Child Mind Institute
14. Nutrition Problems and Their Solutions; Cleveland Clinic
15. Exercise and mood; Victoria State Government
16. Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression; Harvard Health Publishing
17. Nutrition in Middle Childhood and Adolescence; National Center For Biotechnology Information
18. Drugs and Appetite; Sagepub
19. Jeffrey M Brown et al., Medical complications occurring in adolescents with anorexia nervosa; National Center For Biotechnology Information
20. Eating disorders in adolescents: Principles of diagnosis and treatment; National Center For Biotechnology Information
21. Eating Disorders; Nemours
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