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Nutrition Challenges When You're Older or Sick

10 strategies for overcoming loss of appetite.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Like many things in life as we get older, eating can be a challenge.

The sense of taste, like the other senses, diminishes as we age. Appetite and taste can also be affected by medications. In addition, dental problems can make it difficult or painful to chew food.

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Loss of appetite can make it difficult to get adequate nutrition, especially when you’re sick or not feeling well. What can you do to be sure you’re getting the nutrients you need?

“No single strategy works for everyone,” says Kathleen Niedert, RD, director of clinical nutrition and dining services for Western Home Communities in Cedar Falls, Iowa, who counsels many seniors on how to deal with loss of appetite. But for almost everyone, there are ways to eat an adequate diet even when you’re ailing and don’t feel like eating. Here are 10 strategies that experts recommend.

1. Give Yourself Permission to Indulge in Favorite Foods

If you’re having trouble eating enough to get the calories you need each day, don’t worry about the fine points of nutrition advice. Eat anything and everything that appeals to you. Love chocolate milk? Help yourself. Ice cream? Serve up a bowl.

“If you’re experiencing a loss of appetite, the most important thing is to eat foods that supply basic energy to the body,” says Niedert. “Most dietitians now say people in institutions like nursing homes should be encouraged to eat whatever they like, since many have a problem with appetite.”

2. Enjoy Meals With Friends

“If you’re well enough to prepare meals but have trouble getting motivated, find neighbors or friends in a similar situation and invite them over,” says Nancy Wellman, RD, past president of the American Dietetic Association. “Meals aren’t just an occasion for eating. They’re also a key part of how we stay connected with friends and family.”

Studies confirm that people who live with someone else or who eat meals in community settings tend to eat a healthier diet.

3. Buy Prepared or Convenience Foods

“A growing list of pre-prepared foods at grocery stores make it easier than ever for older people to put together healthy and easy-to-fix meals,” says Niedert.

Many items are available that require a minimum of preparation, including pre-peeled carrots, frozen chopped spinach, salad greens, prepared sauces, and complete meals. Microwaves make prepared meals easy to cook at home.

And just because foods are convenient doesn’t mean they are less nutritious. Vegetables, for example, lose nutrients the longer they sit around after they are picked. So frozen vegetables sometimes contain more nutrients than fresh vegetables that have sat around for days.

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