Some common problems, like those listed below, can make it harder for older people to follow through on smart food choices. Here are some problem-solving suggestions.
- Tired of cooking or eating alone?
- Problems chewing food?
- Sometimes hard to swallow your food?
- Food tastes different?
- Feeling sad and don't want to eat?
- Just not hungry?
- Trouble getting enough calories?
- Physical problems making it hard to eat?
- Can food and medicines interact?
- Lactose intolerant?
- Weight problems adding to frailty?
Maybe you are tired of planning and cooking dinners every night. Have you considered some potluck meals? If everyone brings one part of the meal, cooking is a lot easier, and there might be leftovers to share. Or try cooking with a friend to make a meal you can enjoy together. Also look into having some meals at a nearby senior center, community center, or religious facility. Not only will you enjoy a free or low-cost meal, but you will have some company while you eat.
Do you avoid some foods because they are hard to chew? People who have problems with their teeth or dentures often avoid eating meat, fruits, or vegetables and might miss out on important nutrients. If you are having trouble chewing, see your dentist to check for problems. If you wear dentures, the dentist can check how they fit.
If food seems to get stuck in your throat, it might be that less saliva in your mouth is making it hard for you to swallow your food. Drinking plenty of liquids with your meal might help. There may be other reasons you are having trouble swallowing your food, including problems with the muscles or nerves in your throat, problems with your esophagus, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Talk to your doctor about what might be causing the problem.
Are foods not as tasty as they used to be? It might not be the cook’s fault! Maybe your sense of taste, smell, or both has changed. Growing older can cause your senses to change, but so can a variety of other things such as dental problems or medication side effects. Taste and smell are important for healthy appetite and eating.
Feeling blue now and then is normal, but if you continue to feel sad, ask your doctor for help. Being unhappy can cause a loss of appetite. Help might be available. For example, you might need to talk with someone trained to work with people who are depressed.
Maybe you are not sad, but just can’t eat very much. Changes to your body as you age can cause some people to feel full sooner than they did when younger. Or lack of appetite might be the side effect of a medicine you are taking—your doctor might be able to suggest a different drug.
If you aren’t hungry because food just isn’t appealing, there are ways to make it more interesting. Make sure your foods are seasoned well, but not with extra salt. Try using lemon juice, vinegar, or herbs to boost the flavor of your food.
Vary the shape, color, and texture of foods you eat. When you go shopping, look for a new vegetable, fruit, or seafood you haven’t tried before or one you haven’t eaten in a while. Sometimes grocery stores have recipe cards near items. Or ask the produce staff or meat or seafood department staff for suggestions about preparing the new food. Find recipes online. Type the name of a food and the word “recipes” into a search window to look for ideas.
Foods that are overcooked tend to have less flavor. Try cooking or steaming your vegetables for a shorter time, and see if that gives them a crunch that will help spark your interest. Spices, herbs, and lemon juice add flavor to your food, without adding salt.
If you aren’t eating enough, add snacks throughout the day to help you get more nutrients and calories. Snacks can be healthy—for example, raw vegetables with a low-fat dip or hummus, low-fat cheese and whole-grain crackers, or a piece of fruit. Unsalted nuts or nut butters are nutrient-dense snacks that give you added protein. You could try putting shredded low-fat cheese on your soup or popcorn or sprinkling nuts or wheat germ on yogurt or cereal.
If you are eating so little that you are losing weight but don’t need to, your doctor might suggest protein and energy supplements. Sometimes these supplements help undernourished people gain a little weight. If so, they should be used as snacks between meals or after dinner, not in place of a meal and not right before one. Ask your doctor how to choose a supplement.
Sometimes illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, stroke, or arthritis can make it harder for you to cook or feed yourself. Your doctor might recommend an occupational therapist. He or she might suggest rearranging things in your kitchen, make a custom splint for your hand, or give you special exercises to strengthen your muscles.
Devices like special utensils and plates might make meal time easier or help with food preparation. You can search the U.S. Department of Education’s AbleData assistive technology website for information on products designed to make it easier for people to do things on their own. Or call 1-800-227-0216 (toll-free) to learn more.
Medicines can change how food tastes, make your mouth dry, or take away your appetite. In turn, some foods can change how certain medicines work. You might have heard that grapefruit juice is a common culprit when used with any of several drugs. Chocolate, licorice, and alcohol are some of the others. Whenever your doctor prescribes a new drug for you, be sure to ask about any food/drug interactions.
Some older people believe they are lactose intolerant because they have uncomfortable stomach and intestinal symptoms when they have dairy products. Your doctor can do tests to learn whether or not you do indeed need to limit or avoid dairy foods when you eat. If so, talk to your healthcare practitioner about how to meet your calcium and vitamin D needs. Even lactose-intolerant people might be able to have small amounts of milk when taken with food. There are non-dairy food sources of calcium, lactose-free milk and milk products, calcium- and vitamin D-fortified foods, and supplements.
Older people who don’t get enough of the right nutrients can be too thin or too heavy. Some may be too thin because they don’t get enough food. But others might be overweight partly because they get too much of the wrong types of foods. Keeping track of what you are eating could help you see which foods you should eat less of, more of, or not at all.
Obesity is a growing problem in the United States, and the number of older people who are overweight or obese is also increasing. But frailty is also a problem, and not just in thin people. As you grow older, you can lose muscle strength, but you also get more fat tissue. This can make you frail, and in time, you might have problems getting around and taking care of yourself. Being overweight puts you more at risk for frailty and disability.
But, just losing weight is not necessarily the answer. That’s because sometimes when older people lose weight, they lose even more muscle than they already have lost. That puts them at greater risk for becoming frail and falling. They also might lose bone strength and be at more risk for a broken bone after a fall. Exercise helps you keep muscle and bone. Also, for some people, a few extra pounds late in life can act as a safety net should they get a serious illness that limits how much they can eat for a while.
The Dietary Guidelines encourages people 65 and older who are overweight to try to avoid gaining more weight. But, those who are very overweight (obese) might be helped by intentional weight loss, especially if they are at risk for heart disease, suggest the Guidelines. So, if you think you weigh too much, check with your doctor before starting a diet. He or she can decide whether or not losing a few pounds will be good for you and how you can safely lose weight.