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Feature Articles: Eating Disorders

When Mom or Dad won’t eat

Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, nutrition and health education specialist in Barton County, University of Missouri Extension


Most parents have dealt with the worries of having children go through phases of not eating. The unexpected worry for the “sandwich” generation is that of worrying about parents who are not eating. Total Nutrition: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine states that one-half of the health problems experienced by the elderly population are related to nutrition problems.

Eating is a social activity in our society. Planning meals with your elderly parent or assuring they are eating with other people can help.

As we age, our bodies change and some of those changes impact our ability and desire to eat. Much of the time, the change happens so gradually, the person isn’t even aware of it. This can be the case with loose or decayed teeth or ill-fitting dentures. It starts with chewing food in a different area of the mouth to compensate for the pain in the problem area and then can progress to not eating at all because it is more trouble than it is worth. This process can happen so slowly that the person does not even realize why they stopped eating. To help a person with mouth sensitivities, help them get softer fruits and vegetables or chop them finely. Meats can be difficult to chew. Choose soft protein foods such as fish, beans, eggs, peanut butter and cottage cheese.

Another problem that people are generally unaware of is that we lose sensitivity of taste and smell as we age. One side of this double-edged sword is the inability to smell to stimulate the appetite and the other side is the inability to enjoy the taste of the food they decide to consume. Salt is a flavor enhancer but many of the elderly population need to avoid salt. Use herbs and spices to enhance the flavors of foods.

Many people lose the ability to make lactase, the enzyme that helps us digest lactose or the sugar in milk. When you can’t digest the milk, it ferments in the stomach causing gas, bloating, diarrhea and pain. There are low lactose products on the market. Often, people with lactose intolerance can tolerate one glass of milk per day without upset. Cheese and yogurt can be a good choice because they have less lactose than milk.

The intestinal tract slows down resulting in constipation. Things that can help with this are exercise and getting enough fiber. Fiber should be increased slowly to let the body adjust. Remember that when you increase fiber, fluid intake needs to be increased as well. Increasing fluids may be a difficulty because elderly people often lose their sensitivity to thirst. Filling a pitcher with 6-8 cups of water (or favorite beverage) and making sure it is empty at the end of the day can help with this.

Eating is a social activity in our society. Planning meals with your elderly parent or assuring they are eating with other people can help. Sometimes a pet is enough company to positively impact eating habits. The physical activity of walking that pet can also be an appetite stimulant!



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Last update: Monday, February 22, 2010