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, medication side effects, depression, 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 high in sugar 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.
Seniors Have Different Nutritional Requirements
Most sweets are high in calories and fat. While the general population is urged to eat foods like these in moderation, it may be okay for a senior, since fat reserves in the body tend to shrink with age. When it comes to your loved one’s diet, share your concerns with their doctor or a registered dietitian and ask for some guidance. If their sweet tooth isn’t considered a serious issue (ex: it would be highly problematic for a senior with diabetes), then let them eat what they like. This is especially true for seniors who are underweight or losing weight. However, 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.
Why Seniors Prefer Sweet Foods
While a diet high in sugary foods may not necessarily be detrimental to a senior’s health, it can indicate other underlying issues that may need attention. For example, if your elder has problems chewing, swallowing or digesting foods, it’s natural for them to opt for a soft sweet, such as a cupcake, over tougher, more nutritious foods like meat or broccoli.
Ill-fitting dentures and tooth pain are both common reasons for dietary changes in seniors. Make an appointment with their dentist to rule out oral health issues as a contributing factor. For problems with swallowing (called dysphagia) and digestion, see their doctor. Changes in appetite and dietary preferences can be caused by a host of health conditions, such as advancing dementia or even something as simple as constipation. Getting to the bottom of why a senior is eating differently will either yield solutions or help you find ways to modify their diet.
Hiding Nutritious Ingredients in Food
Regardless of the reasons why elders gravitate toward sweets, convincing a loved one to transition away from processed 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 of nutritious desserts for seniors 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 include more nutrients from whole foods.
For a picky eater who loves sweets, smoothies are the perfect vehicles for hidden nutrition. A healthy smoothie can include servings of both fruit and vegetables and doesn’t require a formal recipe. Homemade smoothies can be full of nutrients, taste like a delicious dessert and deliver much-needed fat and calories. They can also be easily 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 frozen banana can provide some much-needed potassium and a creamy texture. Try hiding a tablespoon of ground flax seeds, a spoonful of nut butter or a dollop of whole fat Greek yogurt in your next creation for added protein and healthy fats. 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 and affect the color of the end product. 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 Seniors Indulge
Unless their physician has prescribed certain dietary restrictions because of diabetes or another chronic condition, 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.