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Many common problems, spanning from not liking to eat alone and not wanting to cook every night to physical issues that make it more difficult to eat, can make it harder for us to follow through on smart food choices as we age. Here are some suggestions for overcoming those roadblocks to healthy eating:
Tired of Cooking or Eating Alone?
Maybe you are tired of planning and cooking dinners every night. Have you considered group 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. 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.
Want to Give Cooking a Try?
It’s never too late to learn some cooking skills—or refresh those you might not have used in a while. You can go online to find information on basic cooking techniques and recipes for one person or a group. Borrow simple cookbooks from your local library, or try an educational cooking course. TV cooking shows might be helpful—they often show you step-by-step how to prepare and cook foods. Some grocery stores have cooking coaches available to answer your questions.
Problems Chewing Food?
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.
Sometimes Hard to Swallow Your Food?
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. Problems with the muscles or nerves in your throat, problems with your esophagus, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also make it difficult to swallow your food. Talk to your provider about what might be causing your swallowing issues.
Food Tastes Different?
Are foods not as tasty as you remember? It might not be the cook’s fault! Perhaps your sense of taste, smell or both has changed. Growing older, having dental problems, and side effects from medications can cause your senses to change. Taste and smell are important for a healthy appetite. Try adding fresh herbs, spices, or lemon juice to your plate. If you drink alcohol or smoke, cutting back can improve your sense of taste.
Feeling Sad and Don’t Want to Eat?
Feeling blue now and then is normal, but if you continue to feel sad, ask your provider for help. Being unhappy can cause a loss of appetite. Help is available. You might need to talk with someone trained to work with people who are depressed.
Just Not Hungry?
Maybe you 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. Your lack of appetite might also be the side effect of a medicine you are taking—your provider might be able to suggest a different drug.
Try being more physically active. In addition to all the other benefits of exercise and physical activity, it may make you hungrier.
If you aren’t hungry because food just isn’t appealing, there are ways to make it more enticing. Rather than adding salt, make sure your foods are seasoned well. Try 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 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 you can find recipes online. Or ask the produce staff or meat or seafood department staff for suggestions about preparing the new food.
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 spark your interest.
Can Foods and Medicines Interact?
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 interacts with several drugs. Chocolate, licorice and alcohol are some of the others. Whenever your provider prescribes a new drug for you, be sure to ask about any food-drug interactions.
Some older people have uncomfortable stomach and intestinal symptoms after eating dairy products. Your provider can do tests to learn whether or not you need to limit or avoid foods with lactose. If so, talk to your provider about how to meet your calcium and vitamin D needs. Even lactose-intolerant people might be able to have small amounts of milk when combined with food. There are non-dairy food sources of calcium including calcium and vitamin D fortified foods and supplements.
Trouble Getting Enough Calories?
If you aren’t eating enough, add snacks throughout the day to help you get more nutrients and calories. Raw vegetables with hummus, low-fat cheese and whole grain crackers, a piece of fruit, unsalted nuts or peanut butter are good examples. You can 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 when you don’t need to, your provider might suggest a protein nutrition supplement. 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 provider how to choose a supplement.
Physical Problems Making It Hard to Eat?
Sometimes illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, stroke or arthritis can make it difficult to cook for yourself or eat. Your provider might recommend an occupational therapist. He or she might suggest rearranging things in your kitchen, making a custom splint for your hand, or giving 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 US Department of Health and Human Services’ AbleData assistive technology website for information on products designed to make it easier for people to do things on their own.
Weight Issues Adding to Frailty?
Some older adults do not get enough of the right nutrients. These problems can put older adults at risk of weakening bones and muscles. Obesity is a growing problem in the United States, and the number of older people who are overweight or obese is increasing. Just losing weight is not necessarily the answer. Sometimes when older people lose weight, they lose more muscle than fat. This puts them at greater risk for becoming frail and falling. They also might lose bone strength and be at risk for a broken bone. Exercise helps you keep muscle and bone. For some people, a few extra pounds later in life can act as a safety net if they get a serious illness that limits how much they can eat.
ARTICLE SPONSORED BY:
Hudson Headwaters Health Network is a nonprofit system of 21 community health centers providing primary care to more than 7,400 square miles of the Adirondack North Country and Glens Falls region. The network serves all of Warren County and parts of Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Saratoga and Washington counties.