Taking a Bite Out of Life: Diet & Managing Health and Chronic Illnesses

As a culture, we are engaged in a deep conversation about food. From the increase of diets and exercise media to the explosion in the genre of documentary food films, we are asking, “How do we eat well?” While this seems a simple enough question, our relationship with food seems to be in flux as the elemental choices of everyday sustenance have become more complex. Food is defined as any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth. By this definition we consume a lot of substances offered that just aren’t food.

As we age, this conversation takes on new facets as chronic diseases enter the dialogue. While a chronic disease is a long-lasting condition that can’t be cured, many times it can be controlled. According to the Center for Disease Control, chronic disease is the leading cause of death and disability as it accounts for 70% of all deaths in the US. With 45% of the population having at least one chronic condition, it is no wonder that we are looking to food to help us engage and maintain the lives we want to live. The US Center for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that, “eliminating just three risk factors- poor diet, inactivity, and smoking- would prevent 80% of heart disease and stroke, 80% of type 2 diabetes, and 40% of cancer.”

While the statistics are telling, it can be difficult to change the way food is used in senior care. Different generations think differently about food, tastes and palettes change as we age, and eating patterns are deeply engrained. Regardless of age, suddenly changing the way you eat is difficult work. If your doctor advises a low sodium diet or you suddenly have to cut out gluten or sugar, the task can be complicated. Suddenly those elements seem to be in absolutely everything. Here are 10 tips to help seniors and caregivers use food to take a bite out of life and manage chronic illnesses:

Eat with Others

When you eat socially you generally slow down, savor what you’re eating, and eat less. Be mindful of the dietary restrictions of the group and choose a setting where they can be accommodated. Social eating should be a support system for special diets and not an excuse to ignore them.

Engage In Local Food

Farmer’s markets are a great place to get excited about good food again. By interacting with local growers and getting a sense of the lives and hands behind the food, it’s easier to make healthy choices. You’re more likely to eat that tomato on the counter when you know Jane grew it than if you just grabbed it at the grocery store from among 200 just like it. Visiting farms or community gardens can be another great way to help seniors engage with healthy living or spark reminiscent conversations.

Invest in Food

Americans tend to spend a low percentage of their incomes on food compared to other developed countries. But real and fresh foods are more expensive than processed alternatives that are better at preserving than nourishing. Food guru and author Michael Pollan recommends in his book Food Rules that you, “shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.” Set aside a reasonable budget for food and think of it as part of your healthcare expenses and disease prevention plan. 

Manage Depression

Depression is one of the most common complications of chronic illness, according to WebMD. “Comfort food” can be a consoling mechanism in depression and a contributing factor in creating chronic illnesses that perpetuate the cycle of depression. Maintaining a healthy diet can help manage depression and help prevent further chronic illnesses. Make sure symptoms are communicated to be addressed with counseling and/or medication.

Make Food Sexy

As we age, the palette can change, making food taste blander. Caregivers commonly discuss the resistance that occurs around food. What the best restaurants know is that how we experience food can largely be dictated by the environment in which we consume it. Introduce a little theater at the table. From how food is plated, to music, to fresh air and table décor, we can influence our desire for food simply by making the environment and experience more playful and enchanting.  

Understand Food is more than Fuel

Everyone has a food story. What are your first memories of food? What was the first meal you ever helped make? You see, food contains cultural identity, memories, a sense of belonging, and the pleasure of the changing seasons. When we understand the river of connotations and connections that run underneath each plate, we can have more respect for the task of eating. If you are helping a loved one adopt a healthy diet, make sure to incorporate and remember these elements to give it balance and longevity.

Find Resources

Seek out community, resources, and recipes for adopting a new diet. From low sodium, to gluten or sugar free, there are tons of cooking blogs and handouts online to help you find what works for your time, budget, taste buds, and body.

Call in Reinforcements

Getting help shopping for and preparing food that fits your prescribed diet is an important component of healthy living for many individuals. For aging adults this might look like a taking a tailored cooking class, educational training with a dietitian, or in-home care services that help you navigate those food labels and prepare diet-specific meals on your behalf.

You’re a Body of Water

We remember that the body is made up of 65% water. However, seniors are at a high risk for dehydration. Loss of muscle mass actually decreases the body’s ability to retain water. Other factors such as prescription medications and reduced kidney function can also contribute to dehydration. Make sure there are several options for taking in fluids throughout the day. Offering drinks with a variety of colors, flavors, and temperatures throughout the day will increase hydration. Instead of offering by saying, “would you like a drink?” or overwhelming by listing off all the options, try picking two options and offering “this or that.”

Make Choices Serve You

Remember, your lifestyle choices of diet and activity are there to support you- not you to serve your diet. Link food choices to other choices in your life and make goals in a positive format. Instead of saying, “I don’t want to have a heart attack or gain weight, tell yourself, “I want to dance at my granddaughter’s wedding” or “I want to finish that book.”  Once you’ve set a goal ask yourself, “Is my diet serving my goals? Is the way I’m caring for my body helping me engage in the lifestyle I want for myself?”

Adult children and spouses are often the first to jump in and help a loved one when making a diet change. Often the disruption of routine can be difficult and disconcerting. If you or a loved one are facing the challenge of helping a loved one adopt a new diet, you have Sound Options. Our Care Managers can consult with families to help educate loved ones on chronic illness and help answer their questions about new diets. In-Home Caregivers are able to provide the day-to-day help whether it is going to the grocery store, meal-planning, or preparing meals. Having a neutral third party manage the food is just one of the important ways we help family caregivers avoid burnout. Give us a call today to start getting help around your table. 800.628.7649. 

Published on June 10, 2015.