According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report detailing "Healthy Eating Index" scores among Americans 60 years and older, only 17% eat a diet good enough to be called, well, "good." A whopping 68% had a diet that "needed improvement" and for 14% their diet was outright "poor." Less than third of seniors met the guidelines for eating from the five recommended food groups.
Some of the best scores came in the categories measuring cholesterol and salt, which researchers say could be attributed to patients following medical guidelines limiting those nutrition busters. If that's the case, they need to be given information not just on what not to eat, but also on healthy substitutes to make. Unfortunately trying to adhere to doctor's orders is one of a number of factors creating the problem of malnutrition in the elderly.
Studies have shown the malnutrition in the elderly can strike in places that you'd find surprising, like under the supposed watchful eye of doctors in hospital settings and of health practitioners in nursing homes. Seniors cared for in their own homes seem to fare better, but a variety of factors can lead to them neglecting themselves. For instance, if living alone, they might not want to bother cooking for one; if they are sick, they might lack the appetite or drive to eat, even though good food would help in the healing process.
A cycle of poor nutrition can easily turn into malnutrition in the elderly. If seniors don't eat enough they will get weak, lack the energy to go out, shop...or cook for themselves. Malnutrition in the elderly leads to more frailty and more illnessâ€”physical woes like a fracture that can lead to emotional woes like depression.
If you are aware of the less obvious underlying causes of malnutrition, you'll be in a better position to spot them and intervene:
People can be malnourished without being emaciated. Do some on-the-ground investigating to find out if your parent is at risk and, if so, take steps to reverse the situation.
Get your parent excited about food again. Just because salt may be out doesn't mean herbs, black pepper and subtle spices are, too. Try simmering foods in chicken stock rather than boiling in plain water to add more flavor. And, if full meals are too much to eat at once, discuss rearranging the day's servings into 4 to 6 smaller meals. If your parent lives in a facility where institutional meals are served and is unhappy about their quality, your best option might be to supplement the offerings, with either nutritionals, like meal replacement bars and shakes, or non-perishable, healthy snacks that you know will be appealing—and eaten!
If you are still concerned about whether your parent is eating right, especially if the overall amount doesn't seem to be much, consider consulting with a registered dietitian. They may recommend adding vitamins and supplements to your parent's diet and can outline the best food choices, letting you know what combinations of servings from the various food groups will add up to a diet that is even better than just "good."