Normal aging: forgetting to eat

Cartoon of worried old woman. Thinking,, "Why can't I think?" "I don't feel hungry" and "Why can't I walk (hardly)?" Her stomach replies, "Because you're hungry! Doh!"

Why do I sometimes forget to eat?

When you’re young, eat when your mother tells you to. When you’re old, eat when it’s time to eat — or earlier.

There’s plenty of information about loss of appetite in old people, and three times in the last month I have forgotten to eat. It hasn’t been exactly loss of appetite, though. Rather, when my routine has been disrupted, I’ve waited too long between meals and simply forgotten to eat. Just because of circumstances, and then I got very hungry very suddenly, with annoying consequences. Twice I had an energy crash and felt I could hardly take another step, and then last night a disturbing migraine when I couldn’t find words or speak intelligibly. I blame daylight saving for that one.

Time to revive an old habit: keep snacks handy at all times

I nearly always used to have a bag of nuts and dates in a pocket or a bag to avert sudden hunger. From the age of 30, getting extra hungry meant a sugar crash or a migraine was coming. Migraine triggers are many and varied. For me they usually included hunger or thirst, skipping meals, a disrupted routine, plus usually a bit of stress. So for many years I would shamelessly stuff my mouth with food whenever I suddenly felt hungry. I’ve even accosted strangers and asked if they had a lolly! At a meeting or seminar, at a party, at the theatre — “feel hungry” meant “EAT NOW”.

That’s written in the past tense because in my 70s I barely ever had these episodes.

What’s different about skipping meals in old age

So three times lately I’ve crashed or migrained lately after a change in my usual eating routine. By “routine” I mean I eat when I’m hungry, if at home. That may mean two breakfasts or two lunches, and nobody notices or cares. But as soon as I stay somewhere else or even go out for a long day, that eating pattern doesn’t work. I’m too excited by the adventure to think about eating.

But with each recent episode, strange to say, I have asked myself, “Am I hungry? Surely I should be hungry by now. But no, I don’t feel hungry.” And off I went with dire consequences.

In other words, I do need food, quite urgently, yet I don’t feel hungry. (At home I would eat regardless.)

Does loss of appetite matter in healthy old people like me?

Well yes, it does. It could be a symptom of something fixable or something serious. Also, old people should not get too skinny, especially when that means losing muscle. So let me sort this out for my own case, now, and maybe it will be useful to you too.

So why did I forget to eat?

First rule out serious conditions and medical side effects. In my case (mild and episodic) I can safely say there’s nothing serious going on. So it’s a good time to check everyday causes that I can tweak.

Daily Caring gives 10 reasons why seniors lose their appetite

Now we’re talking. Two of the reasons stand out as valid for me.

  • Dehydration. That could well be a cause. Noted. Especially as I rarely feel thirsty, and have to tell myself to drink water, and make it a deliberate habit. Drinking isn’t the natural response it used to be.
  • Lack of routine. Absolutely! DC says: “Getting into a daily routine where meals are eaten around the same time every day can help their body feel ready to eat at those times.”

I can rule out all the other reasons for myself, even though they’re all valid.

  • Lack of exercise. That’s not me. I might even be exercising when it happens. Still,it makes sense. Exercise helps to fix pretty much every problem you can think of, so why not loss of appetite in older people?
  • Inability to prepare meals (not me, love cooking); loss of taste; inability to chew or swallow; depression or loneliness; sensitivity to smell; loss of control; unpleasant mealtimes

Adapting quickly to age-related changes

So I’ve noticed a change that I suspect is a normal age-related change. It’s not surprising, as all sorts of things are changing, including our metabolism. Taking my cue from centenarian Doris Carnevali, I’m acknowledging it early, treating it as neutral and non-threatening, and seeing it as a challenge.

I need to remember the following from now on.

  1. Keep water and a healthy snack in my day pack or bag everywhere I go.
  2. Do consider this question seriously: “Wouldn’t I normally be hungry by now?”
  3. If this thought even crosses my mind, know that the answer is “Yes, so eat and drink NOW!”
  4. Congratulate myself every time I ask the question and obey the answer.

Have you noticed similar habits of hunger loss?

Naturally I’m interested in whether you’ve had similar experiences, and if so, how you have responded. Our society is fixated on losing weight. So I’m wondering whether some find it a difficult transition to try to keep eating. Easy to joke about, too…

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26 thoughts on “Normal aging: forgetting to eat

  1. Cathy Cade says:

    not eating isn’t an issue for me since I’m usually at home and have to stop myself eating when I’m bored (or when I don’t want to write what I ought to be writing). But, now you mention it, I rarely feel that gnawing emptiness these days that tells you it’s time to eat. (Although I make it a point to eat before I go shopping. Otherwise I come back with too many treats ‘for my tea’.) When I am away from home though, I can forget about eating if it isn’t on the agenda.
    Perhaps I should go out more often…

  2. I am conscious that I don’t drink enough. I tend to scoff at the modern trend of carrying a water bottle at all times and think back to the years and years where I have managed quite well without sipping all the time. Even army training only called for a couple of mouthfuls of water every 5 miles or so! An added point of consideration is that the more we drink, the more we need to visit the loo during the night. What a dilemma! With eating, we keep to a strict timetable for meals and very rarely deviate from that, but do sometimes decide, at a late stage, that we only want a bit of jam/honey/cheese/beans on toast rather than the planned meal!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I think I replied to your comment, Peter, but mine washed away when I dropped my water bottle. Shame, because I thought I rose to new heights of wit by confessing that I had moved from scoffing to quaffing. By the way, most of your snacks are excellent little protein-rich meals.

  3. I don’t get very hungry any more. I’m still pleasantly losing a pound a month, but I do need to consciously drink more. Thanks for writing about this .

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I think the main thing is to be aware of these odd changes so we don’t let them throw us off course.

    2. Rachel McAlpine says:

      My grandson (11) knows when he’s thirsty, but I have to use arithmetic!

  4. Jane Fritz says:

    Good advice. Thank you.

  5. These days, I find I’m uncomfortable after large meals; would rather have a very light lunch and dinner, with perhaps a nibble between (a handful of nuts, a cracker with a little peanut butter).

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I hate that too-full feeling. But as we eat less, it needs some ingenuity to keep up the range of fruit and veges. That may become a challenge.

    2. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Your nibbles are full of protein so all will be well 🙂

  6. I’m only 75 and love to eat, so I rarely forget a meal or to snack. The few times that has happened over the years is when I am engaged in a really engrossing activity. Thanks for making me aware of this issue.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I can identify with that.

    2. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s classic to forget food when you’re in the flow.

  7. Fortunately (sometimes unfortunately), I sometimes eat even if I’m not hungry. I live on a “reward” basis, using snacks or small meals as what I “earn” for getting something done or reaching a certain part of the day.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Whatever works for you!

  8. Rachel McAlpine says:

    I also have moved from scoffing to quaffing.

  9. Suzanne says:

    I am another who loves to eat and putting off eating only occurs if busy. This topic is so important as the issues we had with my elderly parents was not good and I think the forgetting to eat fastened my father’s decline. A small smoothie or soups are ways in which to keep up the fruit and vegetables and the important protein. An excellent post, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So you have seen the consequences up close: hard to watch. Thanks for reinforcing my resolve.

  10. judithhb says:

    Another excellent post Rachel. It’s not that I forget to eat it’s more that I don’t eat if I’m not hungry. That’s usually in the evening but I do remind myself to have a snack before I go to bed if I haven’t had dinner so that I don’t wake up in the morning starving.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Waking up starving is not a good start to the day. And let’s feel free to call a snack a meal and a meal a snack: what’s in a name? Take care, stay well.

  11. granny1947 says:

    I read your post a couple of days ago.
    Got sidetracked before I could comment.
    With all the chaos in my life since December, I lost close to 10kgs.
    And, I was forgetting to eat.
    I was not too concerned about the weight loss.
    Weight drops off me when I am stressed.
    Now I have been forcing myself to eat breakfast.
    And lunch and supper.
    Have picked up 2kgs.
    Thanks for opening my eyes!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      This is the duet of events and metabolism. You know your body well, I think. I hope you can make breakfast a good time: then maybe eating will be easier. Cheers!

  12. cedar51 says:

    I’ve got a tablet that needs to scoffed down, at least 30 minutes before 2 meals a day – morning and evening, I’ve alarm set up on my phone for that exact reasoning. I’ve other potions that need to imbibed but this one is rather VIP. I don’t have to eat a lot at that sitting but it helps to remind me. I do a number of edible things during the day/night and I bought a rather large water bottle which lives most of the day in the kitchen which is a thru’ way to outside…and at night it’s in the bedroom. When I’m out of the house, on one of my bus hopping days I buy a small packet of flavoured milk…and something fairly decent to eat.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I can see you have some excellent systems in place to keep you eating and drinking regularly. I’m keen on my phone alarms, stopwatch,timer and alerts!

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