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Healthy Eating

Overcoming Roadblocks to Healthy Eating

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Here are some suggestions for dealing with the common problems that can make it harder for older people to follow through on smart food choices.

Tired of Cooking or Eating Alone?

Maybe you are tired of planning and cooking dinners every night. Have you considered potluck meals? If everyone brings one part of the meal, cooking is a lot easier, and there might be leftovers to share. Or try cooking with a friend to make a meal you can enjoy together. Also look into having some meals at a nearby senior center, community center, or religious facility. Not only will you enjoy a free or low-cost meal, but you will have some company while you eat.

Problems Chewing Food?

Do you avoid some foods because they are hard to chew? People who have problems with their teeth or dentures often avoid eating meat, fruits, or vegetables and might miss out on important nutrients. If you are having trouble chewing, see your dentist to check for problems. If you wear dentures, the dentist can check how they fit.

Sometimes Hard to Swallow Your Food?

If food seems to get stuck in your throat, it might be that less saliva in your mouth is making it hard for you to swallow your food. Or, there may be other reasons you are having trouble swallowing your food, including problems with the muscles or nerves in your throat, problems with your esophagus, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Talk to your doctor about what might be causing your swallowing issues.

Food Tastes Different?

Are foods not as tasty as you remember? It might not be the cook’s fault! Maybe your sense of taste, smell, or both has changed. Growing older, having dental problems, and medication side effects can cause your senses to change. Taste and smell are important for healthy appetite and eating. Try adding fresh herbs, spices, or lemon juice to your plate. If you drink alcohol or smoke, cutting back can improve your sense of taste.

Feeling Sad and Don’t Want to Eat?

Feeling blue now and then is normal, but if you continue to feel sad, ask your doctor for help. Being unhappy can cause a loss of appetite. Help might be available. You might need to talk with someone trained to work with people who are depressed.

Just Not Hungry?

Maybe you are not sad, but just can’t eat very much. Changes to your body as you age can cause some people to feel full sooner than they did when younger. Or lack of appetite might be the side effect of a medicine you are taking—your doctor might be able to suggest a different drug.

Try being more physically active. In addition to all the other benefits of exercise and physical activity, it may make you hungrier.

If you aren’t hungry because food just isn’t appealing, there are ways to make it more interesting. Make sure your foods are seasoned well, but not with extra salt. Try using lemon juice, vinegar, or herbs to boost the flavor of your food.

Vary the shape, color, and texture of foods you eat. When you go shopping, look for a new vegetable, fruit, or seafood you haven’t tried before or one you haven’t eaten in a while. Sometimes grocery stores have recipe cards near items. Or ask the produce staff or meat or seafood department staff for suggestions about preparing the new food. You can also find recipes online.

Foods that are overcooked tend to have less flavor. Try cooking or steaming your vegetables for a shorter time, and see if that gives them a crunch that will help spark your interest.

Trouble Getting Enough Calories?

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If you aren’t eating enough, add snacks throughout the day to help you get more nutrients and calories. Raw vegetables with hummus, low-fat cheese and whole grain crackers, a piece of fruit, unsalted nuts, or peanut butter are good examples. You can try putting shredded low-fat cheese on your soup or popcorn or sprinkling nuts or wheat germ on yogurt or cereal.

If you are eating so little that you are losing weight but don’t need to, your doctor might suggest a protein nutrition supplement. Sometimes these supplements help undernourished people gain a little weight. If so, they should be used as snacks between meals or after dinner, not in place of a meal and not right before one. Ask your doctor how to choose a supplement.

Physical Problems Making It Hard to Eat?

Sometimes illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, stroke, or arthritis can make it harder for you to cook or feed yourself. Your doctor might recommend an occupational therapist. He or she might suggest rearranging things in your kitchen, make a custom splint for your hand, or give you special exercises to strengthen your muscles. Devices like special utensils and plates might make meal time easier or help with food preparation. 

Can Foods and Medicines Interact?

Medicines can change how food tastes, make your mouth dry, or take away your appetite. In turn, some foods can change how certain medicines work. You might have heard that grapefruit juice is a common culprit when used with any of several drugs. Chocolate, licorice, and alcohol are some of the others. Whenever your doctor prescribes a new drug for you, be sure to ask about any food-drug interactions.

Lactose Intolerant?

Some older people have uncomfortable stomach and intestinal symptoms after they have dairy products. Your doctor can do tests to learn whether or not you do indeed need to limit or avoid foods with lactose when you eat. If so, talk to your healthcare provider about how to meet your calcium and vitamin D needs. Even lactose-intolerant people might be able to have small amounts of milk when taken with food. There are non-dairy food sources of calcium, lactose-free milk and milk products, calcium- and vitamin D-fortified foods, and supplements.

Weight Issues Adding to Frailty?

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Some older adults do not get enough of the right nutrients. These problems can put you at risk of developing weak bones and muscles, which can make you frail and unable to do daily activities. Obesity is a growing problem in the United States, and the number of older people who are overweight or obese is also increasing. But, just losing weight is not necessarily the answer. That’s because sometimes when older people lose weight, they lose even more muscle than fat. That puts them at greater risk for becoming frail and falling. They also might lose bone strength and be at risk for a broken bone. Exercise helps you keep muscle and bone. Also, for some people, a few extra pounds late in life can act as a safety net should they get a serious illness that limits how much they can eat for a while.

The Dietary Guidelines encourages people 65 and older who are overweight to try to avoid gaining more weight. Those who are very overweight (obese) might be helped by intentional weight loss, especially if they are at risk for heart disease. So, if you think you weigh too much, check with your doctor before starting a diet. He or she can decide whether or not losing a few pounds will be good for you and how you can safely lose weight.

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For More Information on Healthy Eating

Choose My Plate

USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center   
National Agricultural Library

USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion

This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date.