It can be hard to muster much enthusiasm for cooking when you’re making meals for one. Why go to the trouble and expense of a three-course meal when a can of soup will do? It’s 6 p.m. and nothing sounds good, so you might as well settle for a cheese sandwich and a cookie – the same thing you had the night before.
Eating that way isn’t fun for anyone, but when seniors limit their food choices, they put their health at risk, which is a common fear for seniors. For one thing, when a person limits his or her food choices, it’s harder to consume the variety of nutrients needed for optimal health. Equally bad, eating the same foods day after day often makes those foods less appealing, which means people eat a smaller amount of them and start to lose their appetites. This can be harmful for seniors, as confirmed by researchers who have found a connection between decreased appetite and poor health.
What Causes Lack of Appetite in Seniors?
Appetite decline is often seen as a normal part of aging, but why? What are the reasons behind the loss of appetite in seniors refusing to eat? Does appetite diminish with age? There are actually numerous physiological changes that occur as you age that can diminish your appetite. These include hormonal changes, disease, pain, changes to the digestive system, and a decreased need for energy as a result of less activity and exercise. Additionally, some people experience a change to their sense of taste, smell, and vision, all of which impact your enjoyment of food.
Appetite is also affected by psychosocial influencers, such as your mood and the surrounding environment. For example, depression impairs the appetite and can lead to seniors not eating properly if they struggle with that mental health disorder. Additionally, loneliness and isolation make it uncomfortable or challenging to cook and eat by yourself. For seniors who live alone, this is a prevalent issue. There is not the same motivation to make a meal or order takeout if you are the only one impacted by the decision.
When seniors stops eating, dementia or cognitive decline may also be the culprit. These afflictions make it hard for seniors to maintain certain routines and patterns. You might find it difficult to keep track of time, simply forget when was the last time you ate, or struggle to remember to get groceries.
Physical pain and discomfort also diminish appetite. You don’t feel much like eating when your body is not functioning properly. Additionally, a majority of older adults are taking at least one medication, many of which are known to cause nausea or alter sense of taste and smell. Both of these are reasons why a senior may refuse to eat or reject certain foods.
What Happens When Seniors Stop Eating?
Although appetite decline in older individuals is normal, it’s not healthy. Reduced appetite is directly related to not consuming the right amount or variety of nutrients, which in turn increases one's risk of weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. Both are detrimental for seniors.
The consequences of nutritional deficiencies and weight loss include increased risk of muscle weakness, hip fractures, osteoporosis, osteomalacia, pressure sores, falls, and even mortality. Additionally, these issues significantly impair the body’s immune function and ability to heal wounds, not to mention overall quality of life.
It's important to note that a loss of appetite in seniors could be a sign for more serious health issues that may not be solved with higher and more frequent nutritional substance intake. First always rule out this possibility by ensuring your senior loved one attends regular check-ups and is taking necessary medications as-prescribed.
If a senior has an otherwise clean bill of health, what signs of a suppressed appetite should you look for? Bodies that don't get enough nutritional substance do not perform at 100%, and there are physical and mental tells that you should be cognisant of to ensure you know when it may be time to intervene:
- Low energy level. Our bodies need fuel to stay active, and when we're low on gas (nutrition), our gas light comes on in the form low energy or lethargy.
- Trouble regulating body temperature. If your senior loved one is frequently cold; turning up the thermostat or always sitting with a blanket on their lap, this could be a sign that they are not consuming proper levels of nutrition.
- Frequent falls. Not eating or drinking enough throughout the day can cause feelings of dizziness, or feeling light headed, which may cause seniors to feel unstable when they stand up or attempt to walk about.
- Digestive issues. If you notice irregular- either frequent or infrequent- trips to the bathroom, this could be a sign of poor nutritional intake. When we eat too much or too little, inconsistently, we cause a shock to our digestive tract.
- Problems chewing or swallowing. Just like every other muscle in our bodies, the muscles we use to chew and swallow need to be regularly used in order to function properly. If you notice a change in the comfort level in which a senior is chewing or swallowing, this could be a sign that they are not doing either enough.
If you notice a change in your senior loved one's appetite or eating habits, there are steps you can take to encourage healthy, regular eating:
- Encourage social mealtime. Some seniors struggle with feelings of isolation or loneliness. Eating alone isn't a very appealing event for many people and the same stands for seniors. When you're planning your visits, consider hanging around for meal time, or encourage meals with caregivers.
- Create a schedule. As with most things we do, the doing gets easier the more we do it. Irregularity in eating habits could be due to irregularities in a daily schedule as a whole. Start eating with your senior loved one at a certain time each day, which can trigger the body to start feeling hungry around that time of day moving forward.
- Exercise. Even for seniors with limited mobility, exercise is a natural way to increase the body's appetite. Speak with a doctor or physical therapist about easy, realistic exercises based on their ability to walk, sit, stand, etc. and try to incorporate more movement in your senior's day.
- Accessible snacks. Some seniors prefer to "graze" throughout the day rather than consume a full meal three times a day. As long as nutritional needs are being fulfilled, this is something that should be encouraged! Foods like cottage cheese, oranges, bananas, and legumes are high in essential vitamins. Consider adding those to the shopping list and keeping around the home.
- Smaller portions, better food. A full plate can be intimidating to someone with a small appetite. A plate full of large portions can also be a lot for some seniors to think about getting through. Eating food that's high in nutrition can make us feel better, which could encourage seniors look forward to eating. We've created a chart to print and place on a refrigerator with helpful information on suggested daily intake of essential vitamins and what foods contain them. Check out the bottom of this post for a free download!
A Study About Varied Diet & Appetite
Appetite, or lack thereof, is a direct result of a person’s diet, according to a study from Monash University.
"Appetite is generally regarded as one of the most important indicators of health," Dr. Wahlqvist said.
Dr. Wahlqvist used data from more than 1,800 Taiwanese people over the age of 65 and found that those who had poor appetites consumed a less diverse diet than others, with a consequently lower intake of energy, protein, vitamins and other nutrients.
Appetite is a reliable predictor of mortality, Wahlqvist said, but paying attention to appetite opens the potential for helpful intervention.
We have compiled two lists of nutrition tips for seniors that fight the effects of aging and keep seniors healthy. One list tells you what you shouldn’t eat, and the other tells you what you should.
What Not to Eat: Foods Seniors Should Avoid
There is a big buzz around anti-aging diets for seniors nowadays. The truth is, there is no such thing as a diet that prevents you from aging. But you can eat foods that will make the aging process more graceful, healthier and happier.
An easy way to understand so-called “anti-aging diets” is not so much thinking about what every senior should eat, but what they shouldn’t.
Here’s the short list of foods seniors should avoid:
- Fried foods: When fried, many foods produce a compound called acrylamide, which is known to damage nerve tissue. But there is another reason to avoid fried foods: they are full of saturated fats.
- Saturated fats: These are fats that your body has trouble breaking down and that contribute to potentially serious cholesterol issues. A high-fat diet can also cause you to feel lethargic or tired. For the most part, saturated fats hide in animal-based foods like meat and dairy.
- Refined sugar: There is an ongoing debate on good sugar vs. bad sugar, and it is generally agreed that the good sugar is the “natural sugar” and the bad sugar is the “added sugar.” Natural sugars occur naturally in the food you are eating – for example, the sugar in an apple. Added sugar, on the other hand, is what you find in a donut or cake.
- Enriched and fortified foods: Contrary to what the names imply, enriched and fortified foods are worth avoiding. When something is “enriched” or “fortified” with vitamins, it means the vitamins were added unnaturally.
- Alcohol: It’s nothing new that alcohol has adverse effects on health, including risk of liver damage, cancer, stroke, and many other things. These risks increase with age, according to the National Institute on Aging.
- Carbs: Carbs don’t have to be avoided entirely, but if you are on a weight loss diet, there are some carbs to avoid after 50. This includes bread, beer, pasta, and most baked goods.
What to Eat: Best Vitamins for Seniors
Now that you know what not to eat, here comes the fun part: what you should eat. There are some vitamins seniors need more than others, and it is common for doctors to recommend supplements. But you can get the vitamins you need straight from the source too, by eating good foods.
A good, varied diet full of all these vitamins is sure to keep both a senior’s appetite and body healthy and strong.
Here is a list of the best vitamins for people over 50, as well as the foods they naturally occur in.
- B6 keeps your metabolism and immune system going strong and is found in soy, whole grains, and organ meats.
- Calcium strengthens the bones and is common in dairy products, seeds, and many nuts.
- Folate prevents anemia and is naturally in spinach, beans, and oranges.
- Magnesium regulates blood sugar and pressure and even helps bones. The best sources of magnesium are spinach and nuts.
- Probiotics are living organisms that promote digestive health. They are best consumed from fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt.
- Vitamin B12 keeps blood and nerve cells healthy and is found in animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy.
- Vitamin C prevents cataracts, heals wounds more quickly, and even helps prevent some cancers. Citrus and peppers are the two highest sources of vitamin C. Contrary to popular belief, vitamin C doesn’t prevent the flu, only it’s symptoms. But we have a list of foods that do fight the flu.
- Vitamin D is key for healthy bones and reducing the risk of dementia and is found in egg yolk, seafood, and sunshine.
Best Diet for Seniors: A Varied Diet at Village Green
At Village Green Retirement Campus, we take pride in the food we serve every day because we know it makes a difference in the health and well-being of our residents. A typical breakfast menu might include eggs to order, a two-egg omelet, buttermilk pancakes, hot cereal, bacon, fruit and toast. Researchers say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and we want to make sure our residents get off to a good start.
Choices at lunch and dinner are even more varied, with a sample lunch menu offering diners a choice between spaghetti with meat sauce, grilled cheese sandwiches and Chinese chicken salad. The dinner menu might include prime rib, roast chicken and a soup of the day. The menu always includes a variety of fresh vegetables and other healthy side dishes and a full selection of desserts, including sugar-free and low-calorie options.
View our menus today and see how delicious dining at Village Green Retirement Campus can be.