Satisfy a Senior’s Sweet Tooth in a Healthy Way

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Although providing an elder with a balanced, nourishing diet is not too difficult, getting your loved one to actually eat the healthy foods you serve can be a real challenge. As people age, their appetites often diminish. Problems with teeth or swallowing, medications, pain, and the inability to taste and enjoy certain flavors are only a few of the many causes of eating problems in the elderly.

Understandably, caregivers who strive to provide good nutrition to their loved ones can become frustrated when the only foods their elders want are sugary and low in key nutrients. However, it’s important to remember that seniors have different dietary requirements than younger individuals. Fortunately, there are ways to strike a healthy and delicious compromise.

Aging Loved Ones Have Different Nutritional Requirements

Most sweets are high in calories and fat. While this combination is generally discouraged, it may be okay for a senior, since fat reserves in the body tend to shrink as we age. When it comes to your loved one’s diet, share your concerns with their doctor and ask for some guidance. If the doctor doesn’t see their sweet tooth as a serious issue (it would be for a diabetic), then let them eat what they like. Don’t expect to put a lot of weight on a frail elder. You can try to improve their nutrition, but that may be the best you can realistically do.

The Reasons Behind a Senior’s Sweet Tooth

While a diet high in sugary foods may not necessarily be detrimental to their health, it can indicate other underlying issues that can be remedied. For example, if your elder has problems chewing, swallowing or digesting foods, it’s natural for them to choose a soft sweet, such as a cupcake, over tougher, more nutritious foods, like meat. Ill-fitting dentures and tooth pain are both common reasons for dietary changes in seniors. Make an appointment with the dentist to rule out oral health issues as a contributing factor. For problems with swallowing (called dysphagia) and digestion, see their doctor. These complications can be caused by a host of health conditions, such as advancing dementia or constipation.

Hiding Nutritious Ingredients in Food

Regardless of the reasons why they gravitate toward sweets, convincing a loved one to consume healthy foods can be challenging. It’s often best to start by introducing nutritious ingredients into their diet gradually. Keep in mind that it’s okay to be sneaky when it comes to nutrition. There are cookbooks on the market that can teach you how to “hide” healthy ingredients in meals, including desserts. Examples include creamy banana ice cream, black bean brownies and chocolate chip sweet potato cookies. Make a list of foods that your elder has enjoyed throughout their life and do some research on how you can adapt the recipes to make them healthier.

For a picky eater who loves sweets, smoothies are the perfect vehicles for hidden nutrition. A healthy smoothie can include far more than fruit, and it doesn’t require a formal recipe. Homemade smoothies can be full of nutrients, taste like a delicious dessert and deliver much-needed calories. They can also be adjusted to appeal to a senior’s sweet tooth (see this recipe for a senior-friendly Shamrock Shake) and meet specific dietary restrictions.

Begin by using mostly fruit for flavoring. Strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and mango are popular, and a banana can provide some much-needed potassium and a creamy texture. Try hiding a tablespoon of flax seeds, a spoonful of nut butter or a dollop of Greek yogurt in your next creation for added protein and healthy fat. Liquid multivitamins and protein powders can be included for an extra boost of nutrients. Leafy greens like kale and spinach are easy to hide in a smoothie as well, but they can be bitter. Be sure to balance these ingredients out with a sweeter fruit blend or a drizzle of honey. You can adjust the smoothie’s thickness by adding ice cubes, water, milk or orange juice. There are many smoothie books on the market and recipes available on the Internet that can provide inspiration.

Let Them Indulge

Unless their physician has banned a particular food because of diabetes or another disease, it’s perfectly fine to allow your loved one to enjoy desserts often. Even though you’re trying to improve their nutrition, you want to offer enjoyment as well as calories. Our loved ones have likely suffered many losses as they’ve gotten older. Letting them indulge in the foods they love can help improve their quality of life.

If I make it to 80, I hope that I can have the foods I like, even if they aren’t “good for me.” In my opinion, unless the food is a direct health threat, our elders have earned the right to eat what they enjoy.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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10 Comments

P.S. My dad ate ice cream 'till the very end. It was a joy in life to him.
This is the first time reading this article. I am a professional Police Officer in Washington, D.C. for over 25 years. I am currently caring for a father who is 90 yrs old, who had a stroke, but still full of fire in his soul. And a brother in Az. who came down with some flu that has put him into a coma. Not sto ay the least, every day I answer calls for police service that are more medical than criminal. Thank you for the great information. We all need a hug and a smile.
I used to sprinkle sugar over Mom's veggies and she eagerly ate them right down! When quizzed on this topic, her doctor also asked me, "What are you trying to do? Extend her life span?" She was already quite old and had dementia. Point made. She's now 100 and still trucking along, but in a memory care facility. I don't obcess about diet any more.