It is not at all unusual to hear caretakers for the elderly mention that their patients are not eating enough, or are making very poor food choices. Unfortunately, we have this notion in America that as a person gets older, their need to take care of themselves decreases. Naturally, this is also applied to the area of nutrition, where we tend to automatically assume that our aging loved ones are eating well.
Nutrition is a Vast and Poorly-Understood Field
There are several pitfalls in our modern understanding of nutrition. Here are some of the most common:
- We have a belief that the substances you eat are used as-is by your body. For example, it is easy to believe that the fat you eat becomes the fat on your body. In fact, your body builds fat out of carbohydrates; so eating bread and candy is what makes your body bigger.
- We have a belief that fats in general are bad for you. This hypothesis became very popular in the 80s and 90s because the government supported it in its published literature, but it turns out that it was based on flawed science. There is no actual link between consuming fat and having heart problems.
- We are obsessed with the notion that calories matter; e.g., calories in/calories out. In fact, the number of calories a food contains is determined by burning it and seeing how much heat it gives off. The problem is, your body is not a furnace. You might as well plunge every food product into a vat of fluoroantimonic acid and count the number of diatomic hydrogens produced and call that “calories.” Your body doesn’t do that, either, so it is equally irrelevant!
So What Does Matter to Proper Nutrition?
In order to get proper nutrition, there are a huge variety of substances the body needs to take in. At the minimum, the body requires:
- Several essential fatty acids (fats)
- Several essential amino acids (proteins)
- Dozens of vitamins
- Dozens of minerals
- Dozens of enzymes and co-factors
This means eating a fairly wide variety of foods. In particular, eating several different colors of vegetable every week is the best way to mix-and-match all of the various vitamins, enzymes, and co-factors. And the best way to get minerals is to get them in the form of meat; meaning a decent variety of meat, including some fowl, some fish, and yes, some red meat as well.
You do not have to worry about getting “enough calories” (or even more accurately, “enough energy”). Human bodies have powerful hormonal mechanisms that will compel you to eat until you have enough energy to survive. Even the most advanced dementia patients will get hungry and eat unless they are physically unable to do so.
Why is Elder Nutrition Difficult?
Simply put, there are three obstacles to getting proper nutrition to our honored elders. First, access to food choices decreases as mobility and ability decreases; many of our nation’s vulnerable venerable are willing to eat well, but not able because they cannot purchase (do not have access to), cannot prepare (due to lack of tools or failing manual dexterity), or eat (due to dental problems) properly nutritious food.
Second, the sense of taste decreases as we age. This can lead to senior citizens choosing foods that are very high in sugar, salt, or other powerful flavors in an attempt to recapture some of the lost sense of enjoyment they used to get from delicious foods. This is not always a problem, but when it prevents them from eating the variety of foods they need because their vegetables are not as delicious as their caramel corn, it can be.
Finally, budgeting can become a major obstacle. Most of our nation’s elders are on a strict fixed income, and in our economy, the cheapest foods are almost always the least healthy. Sugar and grain are almost ridiculously inexpensive compared to meat and vegetables, which means many people are forced by financial circumstances to eat poorly.
Unfortunately, there is no easy panacea to compel our aging loved ones to eat well. It falls upon the individual caretakers to educate themselves on what their patients need and find ways to obtain and prepare those foods so that they can eat and enjoy them.
This is a lot of hard work, but the rewards are well worth it. In the end, when seniors eat healthier, they are more energetic, more engaged, and in a better mood. And that makes every other part of our job much easier!