Not eating healthily enough is a serious risk as we age. Dehydration, or not drinking enough, is also dangerous. Malnutrition is defined as a lack of one or more nutrients in the diet and is important to be aware of as it can lead to longer term health problems.
If an older person is malnourished, they are more likely to become ill and this can lead to an increase in hospital admissions and a longer recovery time. Not eating well can also affect physical, emotional and mental well-being and in severe cases, malnutrition can result in early death.
Older adults are at increased risk of malnutrition due to:
- Poor diet
- Changes to appetite
- Loss of sight
- Lack of mobility
- Difficulty swallowing
- Physical problems making it difficult to shop and cook
- Increased costs of living and food
- Social isolation
- Dental problems including ill-fitting dentures
- Long term health conditions such as arthritis, dementia, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and Parkinson’s Disease
There are key signs that are worth looking out for if you are concerned. For example, sudden weight loss or losing weight without trying, fatigue or low energy levels or simply eating less than usual. Then there are visual signs such as loose clothes or jewellery (e.g. rings) or if there is little or no food in the cupboards or if it is difficult to get to the shops to buy food.
What to eat:
Try to eat small nutritious meals and snacks every 2-3 hours. Keep it simple by choosing small portions of food you enjoy. For example:
- Crackers with cheese
- Dips e.g. hummus or mashed avocado with crackers/breadsticks
- Malt load, fruit scones or teacakes with butter, jam or peanut butter
- Full fat yoghurt, rice pudding or custard
- Sandwiches made with a variety of fillings e.g. cold meat, tuna, soft or grated cheese, egg, peanut butter, avocado or hummus
- Baked beans, sardines, cheese or egg on toast
- Milky drinks e.g. Horlicks or Ovaltine
Low fat foods are not suitable for people who are underweight or have small appetites. Instead, choose full fat dairy products such as whole milk, milk powder, double cream, cheese, butter and serve desserts with cream or custard. Dried milk powder or full fat milk is an easy way to enrich food and drinks with energy and protein. Try adding it to make drinks, mashed potato and scrambled eggs.
Try and have a few ready meals to hand that are easy to open and prepare. Eating well while living alone can be a challenge. If you are struggling, try the following:
- Buying fresh food. Sights and smells can stimulate appetite
- When feeling motivated, try making a larger batch of soup, stews or casseroles and freeze individual portions
- Try eating a regular snack or meal when you watch your favourite TV programme
- Eating with other people can also help boost appetite. Why not invite a friend or relative to join you, or consider a shared meal <link to shared meals info>
- If you struggle to get to the shops, many supermarkets offer online shopping and delivery for an extra cost.
And don’t forget not drinking enough is also a serious risk. Try to have 8 cups of fluid a day. This can include tea, coffee and squash.