Sometimes, people with depression may find that they lose their appetite or do not enjoy the taste of food. The combination of altered taste and a small appetite may result in undesired weight loss.

However, there are ways to manage reduced appetite and still get adequate nutrition. Health experts advise keeping high calorie, high protein foods on hand, such as cheese, peanut butter, and nuts.

They also recommend exercising to stimulate the appetite and eating smaller, more frequent meals.

Read on to learn more about how depression affects taste and appetite, how to manage depression-related eating difficulty, and foods to try.

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Experts do not know exactly why depression may cause food not to taste as good, but it may be related to the pleasure center in the brain.

The authors of a 2018 study suggested that it may stem from the development of anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure. Anhedonia is one of the main symptoms of major depressive disorder. It may explain the reduced response to palatable food in rat studies involving depression.

Additionally, the researchers noted that biological changes in taste cells among people with anhedonia may contribute to the development of depression symptoms.

The researchers examined the prevalence of altered taste perception in 5,275 adults aged 40 years and older. They found that in the general population of U.S. adults in this age group, the prevalence of altered taste was 11.9%. In contrast, among those with major depressive disorder, the prevalence was 23.7%.

Therefore, the researchers concluded that the link between altered taste perception and depression is strong. However, this is just one study, and more research is necessary to determine exactly why depression affects taste.

According to a 2020 study, nearly one-half of people with major depressive disorder have reduced appetite. And in nearly one-third, the problem is severe enough to result in weight loss.

Some individuals with depression experience the opposite: Nearly one-third have an increased appetite and one-fifth experience weight gain.

The authors found some differences between these two depression subgroups, including:

  • levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • amount of inflammation present
  • certain markers of metabolism

Decreased appetite had an association with higher cortisol levels and less response to food cues in a brain structure called the ventral striatum. This structure signals the expectation of rewards.

Increased appetite due to depression was associated with dysfunction of the immune system and metabolism. The results also suggest that people with increased appetite related to depression have higher levels of inflammation.

Smoking and drinking alcohol may negatively affect taste, so if a person does one or both of these, stopping or reducing their smoking or drinking may help. However, this can be difficult, especially for people with depression. Learn more about stopping smoking and stopping drinking.

Some medications can reduce appetite and affect a person’s sense of taste. A person can ask their doctor whether their medications have any side effects that may affect eating.

Additionally, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends the following:

  • Change eating frequency and size of meals: Instead of eating three large meals, try eating several smaller meals or snacks per day.
  • Get regular physical activity: Exercise can stimulate the appetite. A person can try taking a short walk or doing a workout before meals.
  • Avoid drinking with meals: Drinking a beverage with a meal can increase the feeling of fullness. However, it is important to stay hydrated, so people should drink most liquids between meals.
  • Make eating a more enjoyable experience: This may involve watching TV or eating with someone during a meal. Setting the table with attractive dishes may also help.

Below are some tips from the ACS on what to eat:

  • Keep high calorie, high protein snacks available: Examples include nuts, cheese, trail mix, hard-boiled eggs, granola bars, peanut butter, ice cream, puddings, and canned tuna or chicken.
  • Eat favorite foods at any time of day: For instance, if a person enjoys breakfast food — such as oatmeal, pancakes, or eggs — they may wish to have this for dinner.
  • Make high calorie milkshakes or smoothies when unable to eat solid food: Blending ice cream or yogurt with fruit and honey makes a tasty snack. People can try adding frozen bananas, peanut butter, and avocado for more calories and nutritional value.
  • Eat flavorful food: In cooking, use herbs, spices, vinegar, and lemon juice to add flavor.

An individual should talk with a doctor if they have decreased appetite and other symptoms of depression. If someone is losing weight without trying, it is also time to get medical attention.

Treatment is available, and the earlier it begins, the more effective it will be.

Some people with depression find that food does not taste as good as it used to, and they may lose their appetite. Researchers suggest that the cause of altered taste in people with depression is the inability to feel pleasure.

People can try eating small, frequent meals and keeping calorie-dense, high protein snacks on hand. They may also consider consulting a registered dietitian for recommendations.