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Clearing Hurdles to a Nutritious Diet

These 6 tips will help older adults meet their nutritional needs.

A woman cutting vegeatbles in her kitchen; Getty Images

Content provided by Philips Lifeline.

A healthy diet has a huge impact on how we fight illnesses, recuperate from medical procedures and maintain well-being over a long lifespan. But important as nutrition may be, serious obstacles can get in the way of maintaining a healthy diet.

Because it can be difficult to eat properly, millions of older adults in the U.S. face the risk of malnutrition. Some research estimates that almost 14% of adults over 60 were at risk of going hungry and becoming under-or malnourished. This can profoundly impact our physical and emotional health. Among the negative impacts:

  • Poor diet can lead to impairment of our executive functioning and ability to think critically.
  • A lack of adequate vitamins, minerals and other nutrients decreases resistance to illness, makes it more difficult to heal wounds, and negatively affects strength and stability.
  • Food insecurity can heighten levels of anxiety, leading in turn to depression and mental health issues.
  • ER visits or hospitalizations are more likely to occur when we can’t get the nutritious foods we require regularly.

For older adults, each one of these scenarios can easily mean losing independence. So, it’s crucial for them, as well as their family members to understand and recognize the signs of malnutrition.

Symptoms of poor nutrition
It can be tricky to recognize signs of under-nourishment or malnutrition. It’s often easy to mistake them for illnesses or prescription drug side effects. Be especially vigilant if you take multiple prescription drugs, have recently been sick or hospitalized, or live with a chronic illness. Pay particular attention to these symptoms:

  • Mood changes
  • Pallor or changes in skin tone
  • Confusion or a decline in cognitive ability
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sudden weight gain or loss
  • Household clues like spoiled or expired foods; a kitchen that doesn’t appear to be in use; or a sparsely stocked pantry or refrigerator

There are ways to combat these obstacles, in order to put proper nutrition at the forefront.
6 Obstacles to Proper Nutrition and Ways to Overcome Them:
1. Limited finances

We can make our money go farther by searching for coupons on the internet and additional discounts for nutritious foods, or by selecting comparable store brands rather than major labels. Look online for budget-friendly home delivery services offering fresh produce that isn’t aesthetically acceptable to grocery stores but is still absolutely healthy. Food banks are also great options for minimal- or no-cost grocery products, and a number of them partner with local growers to provide fresh produce. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides coupons for use at farmers’ markets and roadside stands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a searchable directory of food assistance programs.

2. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs

Side effects of certain medications can decrease appetite and alter the sense of taste, as well as the capacity for nutrient absorption. Have a talk with your pharmacist to learn about how any prescription and over-the-counter drugs you may be taking could affect you in these ways. Take into consideration any possible interactions or food-related instructions. Then discuss with your healthcare provider strategies to help you deal with any additional obstacles that may prevent you from getting the nutrition you need.

3. Physical limitations and chronic illness

Any limitations or chronic conditions can make us more susceptible to malnourishment because it’s tough to shop for and prepare food, as well as eat it. Certain medical treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, can adversely affect appetites. One helpful approach to cooking is to buy kitchen utensils specially designed for people with arthritis or decreased strength. Consider investing in a sturdy non-slip stool, which can be an excellent supportive tool for cooks who have trouble standing because of stamina or stability issues. Meals on Wheels delivers home-cooked meals to adults whose mobility issues or medical conditions keep them homebound. Your local department on aging can point you in the direction of resources such as these. Learn how to adapt household items to your physical condition.

4. Emotional, mental and cognitive conditions

Diminished appetite can also be a byproduct of loneliness and isolation. A number of local agencies provide home visits to older adults, which lessens isolation and can help boost appetite. Senior centers, houses of worship and community spaces often host group meals at little or no cost, specially geared to people 65 and older—and offer free transportation as needed. Sharing a meal with other people can be a very satisfying way to improve diet, as well as increase companionship and social interaction. Mental and cognitive conditions like depression, anxiety and dementia often lead  to poor diet—so it’s important to address these issues with your care team. Consult your doctor or psychologist for dietary recommendations designed specifically for those who live with these conditions.

5. Dental issues

Inflamed gums, ill-fitting dentures and sore teeth can make eating so painful we may pick foods according to texture rather than nutritional value—or we avoid eating entirely. Talk to your dentist or periodontist about any oral health concerns that may keep you from maintaining a healthy diet. If  dentophobia (fear of all people and things dentistry) is an obstacle, ask your nurse or physician to examine any painful or numb areas in your mouth. Get more tips on oral health.

6. Sensory losses

As we get older, we may undergo sensory losses that can also adversely affect diet. Most common are vision and hearing impairments, and decreased tactile sensitivity. These can lead to issues like reading labels wrong, and being unable to hear a kitchen timer or properly sense heat, all of which can seriously impact our dietary health. Taste buds lose sensitivity as we age and it can become more difficult to smell. As a consequence, we may over-salt our food, which can be a problem, particularly for older adults on a low-sodium diet. A good alternative is to season instead with fresh ingredients like herbs and lemon juice, and to use healthy sauces and gravies. Varying the texture of our foods can also stimulate our senses so that we eat enough to maintain physical well-being.

Each of these factors can be an obstacle to proper nutrition, so it’s important to keep a handle on any issues that apply. There is no shame in talking about these issues with your family, friends and care providers. By making it a team effort, we can make nutrition a priority and enjoy healthy aging.

Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a healthcare condition.

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