This simple question can become tricky to answer when the person you're close with has a medical condition. They need good nutrition now more than ever. But they're also up against side effects like changes in appetite, taste, and nausea -- or their illness may make it hard to chew or swallow.
It's important to know the signs that your loved one may need more of key nutrients.
The Clue: Unintended Weight Loss
The culprit: Nausea can lead to this. So can a change in appetite, or in their ability to eat. It’s cause for concern if you have a medical condition.
“Sick people are less able to tolerate weight loss than healthy people,” says Lisa Cimperman, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “My red flag goes up when someone loses 10% of their body weight.”
Even if your loved one was overweight before they got sick, they're at risk of losing muscle, which they need to keep.
The fix: Lynda McIntyre, RD, a clinical dietitian specialist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, offers these tips:
- Eat five or six small, nutritious meals a day, instead of three large ones.
- Use liquid supplements to boost calories and liquids.
- Dine with family or friends to make mealtime more enjoyable.
- Eat a variety of soft and hard foods such as applesauce, yogurt, or vegetables that have been pureed along with raw, crunchy foods.
If your loved one has trouble chewing or swallowing, work with a dietitian on strategies such as pureeing foods to cover their nutritional needs.
The Clue: Fatigue
The culprit: Your loved one may have iron-deficiency anemia. It happens when blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells (those are the ones that carry oxygen to the body’s tissues). That can lead to anemia, which can cause fatigue.
You might also notice pale skin, a concave dip or “spooning” of your loved one's nails, or cold hands and feet. Severe iron-deficiency anemia can lead to heart problems, infections, problems with growth and development in children, and other complications.
The fix: Iron -- no surprise there. But see your loved one's doctor for a proper diagnosis before you reach for an iron supplement. Don't let the person you're caring for take one unless the doctor says it's right for them, "since iron can be toxic in large amounts,” Cimperman says.
The Clue: Hair Loss or Thinning
The culprit: It could be related to medication, treatment, stress, or your disease itself. But it could also mean your loved one is short on iron or protein.
When the body doesn’t not get enough protein, it rations out what it does get. One way it does that is to shut down hair growth, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
The fix: Eat more protein. Beef, pork, fish, poultry, and eggs are all good sources. Vegetarians can get it from nuts, seeds, and beans. If you think your loved one is low on iron, get their levels checked and have them take a supplement if their doctor recommends it.
“Eating sources of iron such as meat and leafy greens and taking a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement can ensure that iron levels remain adequate after being depleted,” Cimperman says.
The Clue: Mouth Problems
The culprit: An inflamed, glossy tongue and inflammation at the corners of the mouth point to a B-vitamin shortage, and an iron deficiency. The most common B-vitamins -- B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), niacin, B6 (pyridoxine), and B12 -- are essential for supporting the body’s metabolism, making energy, and helping it fight off disease and infection.
The fix: See your loved one's doctor. They can rule out other causes and check for low levels of vitamin B. Your loved one may simply need to eat more B-rich foods, such as fish, dairy products, whole grains, leafy greens, and fortified cereals.
“In some cases, a vitamin supplementation above what you can get from food may be necessary,” Cimperman says. “If you don’t require high-dose supplementation, take a daily B complex supplement. This is particularly important for vegans, as B12 can only be found in animal products or fortified foods.”