As people age, their needs of having a balanced and healthy diet also increases, and it is essential to provide their body with a wide variety of nutrients to stay healthy.
Many diseases such as diabetes and osteoporosis in older adults are the result of improper eating habits and diet.
Vitamins and minerals should primarily come from a healthy diet. However, eating a well-balanced diet becomes a challenge as we age.
Having worked both in residential and in home care, I have observed and spoken with a lot of our residents and clients and found various reasons as to why older adults may just eat a little or may not want to eat at all.
Causes of Loss of Appetite in Elderly
> As our body ages, our metabolic rate slows down and because elderly people don’t move as much, their bodies would require less calories. They may find the size of meals overwhelming when they see a large amount of food in front of them and may begin to lose their appetite. I hear this a lot from our residents, “I just sit here all day so why do I have to eat a lot? I’m not hungry!”
> Food may not seem appetizing or smell as appealing due to loss of smell and taste. A lot of older adult’s taste buds may not be as able to detect flavors. If you tell an elderly person to cut down on salt or sugar due to health reasons, food may not be as palatable to them anymore because they actually need more to taste.
> Eye conditions or diseases such as cataracts, macular degeneration and glaucoma may cause loss of vision. Seniors suffering from these eye conditions may not be able to see clearly what is being served to them. Combined with loss of other senses like smell or taste, they will likely lose interest in food.
> Some people may not be so keen on eating due to chewing or swallowing problems. Maybe they have oral or dental issues such as decayed teeth, swollen gums, an abscess, an infection or a throat problem that is preventing them from eating.
> Some medications may produce side effects such as dry mouth or a metallic taste which can alter the taste of food and water thereby making them lose their appetite.
> Others may have reduced appetite due to changes in hormone production; they may be feeling lonely or depressed. And if they live at home and will be eating by themselves, the feeling of loneliness may be magnified.
> Some may be feeling unwell and be experiencing pain anywhere: an arthritis flaring up, a headache, an abdominal pain, or maybe they feel bloated as they haven’t opened their bowels for a few days.
> Old people with dementia sometimes don’t realize the importance of eating nutritious food to stay healthy, or worse, they don’t even remember the process of eating so they need a lot of encouragement and prompting to chew and swallow their food until they finish their meal.
> People with some medical conditions like Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, etc. may find it extremely difficult to eat by themselves so it’s either they only eat a little or they won’t eat at all.
> There are others who wouldn’t want to eat because they have no choice of what to eat. They may be given choices but what they really want to eat is not one of them. Some would like the food that the person next to them is eating but they can’t have it as they have a different type of diet.
> Others may find the dining experience unpleasant: it could be too crowded or too lonely, too noisy because other residents are calling out or the background music is too loud.
> Older adults living at home independently may find it too difficult to prepare their meals so they just eat whatever is available or sometimes they just can’t be bothered to eat.
Whatever their reason is for not eating, we should try our best to find out what that is and address it accordingly. Here are some tips you might find helpful to improve their appetite and their overall health.
How to Improve Appetite in Elderly
1. Rule out serious medical conditions, oral and dental issues, and medication side effects as the cause of loss of appetite.
2. Serve small portions of nutrient dense and attractively presented food frequently. You may need to give them 5 small meals instead of 3 large ones.
3. Season food with herbs and spices instead of salt to improve the aroma and the taste.
4. For people with low vision, use contrasting colors so they can easily differentiate things from one another. Example: Use a dark colored placemat and a white plate. Give them a bright colored mug with a lid to avoid spillage. It will also help to describe the meal and where each item is located in front of them.
5. Provide foods that are soft, moist and cut into smaller pieces so people experiencing oral problems can easily chew and swallow them. If they have dentures, make sure that they are wearing them and that they are clean and fitting well.
6. Talk to their doctor if there is any alternative medication or if it is possible to reduce the dosage of their medication to minimize the side effects.
7. Ask them what they like to eat and try to provide it to them as far as practicable. This might make them more compliant to eat and finish their meal.
8. Provide assistance with feeding if they are unable to eat or are struggling to do it by themselves.
9. Family members can cook for them if they have time. If not, they can either get someone to do it for them or ask paid meal delivery services like Meals on Wheels to deliver their food regularly.
10. Consider preparing plenty of easy to eat nutritious snacks in small containers so they can easily grab them if they are unable to cook.
11. Try to minimize noise during meals when possible. Consider putting on soft relaxing music in the background for a more pleasant dining experience.
12. Family members may be able to come and share meals with their loved ones. If this is not possible, consider asking a friend, a neighbor or a volunteer to eat with them so they don’t feel lonely. Meals are often enjoyed more when shared with other people.
Nutrition Tips for Elderly
- Make sure they drink enough water
As people age, their sense of thirst decreases. Old people may not realize that they are thirsty and can become dehydrated. Dehydration leads to different problems such as skin shrinkage, constipation, and confusion. For the elderly, it is recommended to drink at least eight glasses of water per day unless they have medical conditions that restrict them to do so.
Water energizes muscles and is essential for building and developing strong muscles. Muscle fatigue is a direct consequence of not maintaining fluid balance. Without water, the muscles of older adults may not work well, and they might experience trouble walking.
In order to make sure they drink enough water, count their glasses of water. You can place a small bottle or glass next to them. Remind them to drink at specific times of the day even if they don’t really feel thirsty.
- They should consume foods rich in fiber
The functions of the digestive system may be affected as we age. Eating foods rich in fiber such as wholegrain bread and cereals, fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans improves their digestive systems’ functionality and helps their body digest food easier.
Moreover, foods rich in fiber also helps to lose weight as they are more filling. Old people are likely to eat less and stay satisfied longer, which is vital since they may not do enough physical activities. Another benefit of having a high fiber diet in older adults is that it decreases the amount of blood sugar as soluble fiber slows down the absorption of sugar.
- Their diet should contain a wide variety of foods
Elderly people need to eat a wide variety of nutrients from all food groups according to the food pyramid. Try to provide vitamins and minerals by choosing various nutritious food.
According to the National Council on Aging, your plate should look like a rainbow ( with bight colored foods). A healthy meal should consist of lean protein (lean meat, seafood, eggs, beans) whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat pasta), low-fat dairy (milk and its alternatives) and fruits and vegetables ( bright colored ones like green, orange, purple and red).
Even if they don’t like specific types of food to eat, there are alternatives for them. For example, if someone can’t drink regular milk, they can replace it with soy milk, cereals, tofu, or sardines to have some calcium in their body.
- Control blood sugar
High blood sugar is a common issue among elderly people. In order to control their blood sugar, you should carefully review what they eat.
First, limit foods and drinks containing added sugars, including cakes, chocolates, sugary drinks, candies, fast foods, etc.
Second, the elderly diet should contain more fruits and vegetables, a sufficient amount of water, grains, higher-fiber foods, etc.
- Remove saturated and trans fats and salt
Accumulation of saturated and trans fats in the body could lead to heart diseases, the leading killer of elderly people. Instead of solid oils, use vegetable oils like canola and olive for elderly people. Moreover, do not use fatty cuts of beef or pork and avoid eating high-fat dairy foods. Have avocado, nuts and fish high in omega-3 instead.
Do not forget that too much salt increases the risk of cognitive decline, along with increased blood pressure, risk of having strokes, heart attacks, and heart failure among elder people.
- Consider supplements
Old people may lose their appetite and lose weight unintentionally. If all the other tips mentioned above to improve their appetite fail, you can try to give them liquid nutritional supplement.
You can also consider supplemental vitamins and minerals if the nutrients in their diet is not enough, but you may want to consult their doctor first before they start taking any of these supplements to ensure their overall health.
Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is not easy for the elderly because of various reasons. But no matter how challenging it could be, we should not give up.
We should be patient and creative to ensure that they get all the nutrients that their body needs. You’ll never know, they might enjoy their next meal!