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5 Reasons Why a Senior May Not Eat Enough

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Sharon watched with distress as her frail, 82-year-old mother used a fork to pick at the pot roast and potatoes on her plate. It looked like she hadn’t eaten more than three bites during dinner. Sharon wondered if her mom had lost weight since she saw her last week. Yes, she decided, she’s getting even thinner.

“Please eat a little, Mom,” Sharon pleaded. “You never eat anymore.”

Perhaps you can relate to Sharon’s concern. Many family caregivers express anxiety about the small amount of food an older loved one eats. But how can you tell if a senior relative really needs to eat more? More importantly, how can you make sure an older adult is getting enough nutrition regardless of how little he or she eats?

First, it’s important to understand most seniors like Sharon’s mom simply may not need to eat as much as they used to. To carry out basic cellular processes like nerve signaling in the brain, the body requires energy from food. This energy is measured in units called “calories.” When a person is growing, such as during adolescence, their calorie requirement skyrockets. But when a person gets older and less active, their calorie requirements go down. Thus, an older adult who lives a sedentary lifestyle does not require as many calories to satisfy the body’s energy needs. This reduced calorie need can lead to a natural decline in appetite.

A more important question is whether or not an older adult is eating a balanced diet to meet his or her nutritional needs. If your senior loved one eats a low volume of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, then they might well be maintaining a good nutritional status even if they’re not eating a lot.

However, if your senior family member has symptoms of malnutrition like weight loss, poor wound healing or increasing frailty, then you might want to investigate her eating habits. To help you identify a potential cause for your loved one’s situation, here are five reasons why seniors may not eat enough nutrient-rich foods—and how you can help them improve their intake to avoid malnutrition.

1. Problems chewing

It makes sense that you need good teeth to enjoy food. Ill-fitting dentures, cavities or gum disease can make it difficult or painful for a senior to chew food, so they stop eating. And seniors with a cognitive issue like dementia may not be able to tell you their mouth hurts.
To avoid this situation, make sure a senior loved one gets regular dental checkups that include checking the fit of dentures. If a senior has a tender mouth in spite of not having dental problems, then try preparing soft recipes that are loaded with flavor, such as mashed potatoes topped with melted low-fat cheese and sour cream.

2. Medications interfering with sense of taste

A person’s sense of taste naturally declines with age, and many drugs can further reduce a person’s ability to discern the flavors of foods. Talk with the senior family member to find out if they find eating unappealing because their sense of taste is “off.” If this is the case, you might consider speaking with the loved one’s doctor to find out how to address the situation medically. In the meantime, help the senior identify wholesome foods that will deliver great nutrition even in small quantities. Think fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grain breads and pastas, and flavorings like fresh lemon juice to add a punch of taste to every bite.

3. Depression

The life events that occur in older age, such as losing a spouse, can cause mild or serious depression. Depression or stress can suppress the appetite and lead to less eating and poor nutrition. If you think a senior loved one might be depressed, try asking them about it. Many people feel relieved to talk about their emotions, and once you open the door to this possibility then you can consult a doctor for help with the situation. Companionship, talk therapy, or medications may help to ease depression and get a senior back to eating normally.

4. Inability to cook

Even people who enjoyed cooking when they were younger may find it challenging to lift heavy pans, chop vegetables and perform other rigorous tasks required to prepare a meal. And if they are cooking for one, they may not find the effort to be worth it.

You can help by offering to prep food in advance to make cooking easier. Take one afternoon a week to chop vegetables or meats and put them into easy-open containers for the senior to use later that week. Find nutritious, easy-to-prepare recipes online and share them with your loved one. You also can hire a professional caregiver specifically to assist with meal preparation. Home Instead Senior Care® CAREGivers℠, for example, are knowledgeable about meal planning, food prep and senior nutrition.

5. Loneliness due to eating alone

Home Instead Senior Care® research shows lack of companionship is the biggest mealtime challenge for seniors. Dining alone can magnify loneliness and feelings of depression, which in turn can suppress appetite and lead to poor eating. You can help by spending mealtime with your loved one as often as possible or by telephoning around the lunch or dinner hour. Fortunately, there are many resources available on the web for anyone who is craving companionship at mealtime. And don’t forget to take the Sunday Dinner Pledge®, designed to bring the whole family together for a sit-down meal every weekend.

Good nutrition contributes greatly to a senior’s quality of life, and eating only small quantities of food may, on its own, not be a sign of senior malnutrition. If you think a senior loved one doesn’t get enough calories, is losing weight or appears malnourished, then it is wise to seek ways to help. Once you identify the underlying reasons why an older adult isn’t eating well, then you can take the steps outlined above to help get him or her back on the path to wellness.

Last revised: December 6, 2016

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. September 27, 2019 at 6:33 pm | Posted by val

    My husband is the same; I feed him a balanced meal which he hardly touches and then sits in his chair and eats junk food.


  2. September 23, 2019 at 2:08 pm | Posted by Angela

    I am having a hard time too. My friend asked me to move in as she ages in home. She is 88. She has never eaten much but now she is rail thin. She has two pots of food in the fridge from before I moved in and the food has gotten moldy and she will not let me throw it out. Or make her more food. I am not financially able to buy her food. I know she has money for food, but will not spend it. I don't know what to do.


  3. July 15, 2019 at 5:46 am | Posted by Mustafa Yacoob

    My grandmother won't listen to me and she doesn't eat properly because of some problems with chewing. This blog is really informative. please keep sharing!!


  4. March 13, 2019 at 5:05 am | Posted by Angie Skinner

    WWII FOREIGN AFFAIR SPOUSE MY GRANNY... LAID A HEAVY BURDEN UPON ME... HER NAMESAKE... IN HOME CARE GIVER OVERSEER HER LAST WILL... AND TESTAMENT But it was at her request I would not leave her very selfish and hidden agenda of sibling monetarily.. Leaving a large weighty burden. While executing her in home stay until her demise.... Yet my confidence in that which is done right... Caring out her heart's desire.... Recovering from the troubles encountered. I am confident for my granny knowledge I did the right thing. THANK GOD. I AM MENTALLY FREE. WORKING ON MY HEALTH AND MY FINANCIAL STATE OF BEING.


  5. March 13, 2019 at 4:56 am | Posted by Angie Skinner



  6. February 11, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Posted by Marilyn

    Thanks for the info Taking care of 97 years old man .For me aside from mention above about eating additional why they eat small amount is that less moving , I mean no enough exercise, just sleeping , watching tv , mostly in home.So far my client eat nutritious food that I cook . He’s getting stronger than the first time I came to be his caregiver . Hoping for more years to live 🙏😇💗


  7. November 22, 2017 at 10:34 pm | Posted by Judy McIvor

    My husband won't listen when I explain he needs protein. He'd rather eat junk food. He will snack on nuts.


    • January 18, 2018 at 5:45 pm | Posted by Joyce

      Mine isn't getting protein either. Nothing has any taste except mostly sweets. He's pretty much sleeping all day in the recliner by the window. He is drinking chocolate fudge Ensure. He enjoys it but only the chocolate....


      • April 4, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Posted by Cathy

        You are describing my 81 yr. old husband to a tee. He loves his chocolate and also drinks a chocolate protein drink. He sits in front of the TV most of the day and sleeps a lot. He dreads meal time. I try to give him fruits and vegetables every day. He has a difficult time chewing most meats. Any suggestions would be appreciated.


      • March 20, 2019 at 9:42 am | Posted by Irene

        If sweets are a preference, to add protein try using almond flour or adding peanut butter to a recipe. Smoothies are always an option too, you can use Greek yogurt and milk, or substitute another milk option.


  8. September 24, 2017 at 7:43 am | Posted by mia

    Pls. know that also one senior I know is afraid of getting gas/diarrhea which she gets when she eats too much.. I do not believed this was mentioned in the book.


  9. September 23, 2017 at 4:57 pm | Posted by Maria E. Macias

    What dose it mean when a 80 year old person has a hard time swoling there food like soup even solid food?


  10. September 23, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Posted by Mary

    My legally blind client wasn't eating much. I now cook and serve her a plate of food every night. She's eating so much better it makes me feel ? so good. And I'm not a chef. Simple foods is all it takes and being with her at dinner time.


  11. December 19, 2016 at 10:23 am | Posted by Jackie

    Thanks for explaining the possibilities of an elder person not wanting to eat. This is helping as far as the problem with my Mother. Should we make sure she eats something but not force her to eat. Thanks for the advice.


  12. December 14, 2016 at 11:00 am | Posted by Andrew W. Snyder CPA

    I had this problem with my 87 year old wife. Our main care giver and I have dealt with the problem by offering a variety of food and snacks to break up the monotony. For example, for breakfast, she has grapefruit, orange juice, scrambled eggs with bacon or sausage, or a waffle, or eggs with hash browns. For lunch she will have a fruit cup and yogurt with potato chips or pretzels for snacks. She will also have a mid afternoon smoothie of peanut butter, soy milk, honey, and protein powder. She eats a regular dinner and in the evening she will have a Glucerna shake. The care giver and I are always looking for new things to add to the variety. So far this has worked in maintaing weight and my wife's interest in eating.


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