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Nutrition Reminders for Seniors with Dysphagia

The nutrition seesaw for seniors can be quite the balancing act. Try maintaining a healthy weight to fight obesity while also getting enough calcium to support healthy bones, or staying hydrated throughout the day while also avoiding sugary beverages that can contribute to diabetes.

Now add on trouble with eating and swallowing. Your nutrition seesaw can quickly turn into a roller coaster. An estimated 6 millions seniors in the United States[1] are at risk for or live with dysphagia, the diagnosed difficulty and discomfort with swallowing. As a by-product from an existing condition like MS or Alzheimer’s, or the effect of medical trauma like a stroke or cancer, dysphagia requires people to eat a special diet of thickened liquids and softened or pureed foods.

Dysphagia diets typically focus on the thickness and swallowability of foods, rather than their nutritional makeup. Living with dysphagia often means drinking many of your meals – whether it’s nutritional shakes, smoothies, or soups – or adding protein powders and chemical thickeners to pre-blended meals and drinks. The battle with swallowing can take so much time and effort that giving a second thought to nutrition and natural eating seems irrelevant.

Empower a healthy dysphagia diet with these small, manageable reminders:

Prioritize Healthy Hydration

Chronic dehydration is unfortunately very common among seniors, even those without dysphagia. Trouble swallowing, however, makes it that much more difficult to intake the recommended 64 ounces of water a day. Healthy hydration promotes mental acuity, energy and endurance, weight management, and a healthy blood pressure. Seniors with dysphagia can find motivation to drink more water by:

  • Choosing a thickening agent that is quick, efficient and palatable

  • Drinking a full glass of water every time you visit the restroom and take medicine

  • Tracking what you are drinking throughout the day with premeasured bottles

  • Setting reminders on your phone or alarm clock to drink water throughout the day

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Trying to eat proportionate, regular meals while experiencing dysphagia is extremely hard. The fatigue and stress associated with simply trying to get food to the back of the tongue to swallow it can be overwhelming and prevent seniors with dysphagia from being able to eat for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Maintaining a healthy weight for a senior with dysphagia therefore typically means trying to keep weight on (not off). To do this without intaking gross amounts of sugar and chemicals that you find in high-calorie nutritional drinks takes thoughtful diet modifications.

You can add healthy fats and calories to dysphagia meals to boost energy levels and increase weight with simple incorporation of fat-forward and nutritious foods.

  • Add heavy cream or whole milk to soups and smoothies (instead of skim milk or broth)

  • Blend the super-food avocado into savory and sweet dishes like fruit smoothies and herby dip

  • Drop in quarter cups of full fat Greek yogurt into creamy soups and smoothies

  • Use full fat coconut cream in pureed curry dishes, smoothies, and milkshakes

Thicken Meals Naturally

Numerous powders and gels that act as thickening agents are available for people living with dysphagia to add to their meals and beverages; but how does this help pack in the vitamins and nutrients they also need to stay healthy? Natural, vitamin-rich additions to existing recipes that blend well include:

  • Potatoes – the starchy, potassium-rich potato (or sweet potato) is a great way to thicken blended soups and stews without synthetic thickeners. Be careful not to blend or mix potatoes too much or the starch cells break down and turn your food into paste.

  • Grains and legumes – Dried lentils, canned red or white beans, and cooked brown rice add extra calories, protein, and fiber to blended dishes.

  • Winter squash – Butternut and acorn squash can be roasted or baked to tender perfection and added to savory or sweet dishes, including soup or banana milkshakes. Winter squashes not only thicken dishes naturally but add potassium, folate, and vitamins A and C.

Fight High Blood Pressure

According to the American Heart Association[2], close to 85 million Americans experience hypertension (high blood pressure), with lifestyle and diet being a leading cause of it. Tackling hypertension on a honey or nectar-thick diet can be tough for people with dysphagia, especially when many “drinkable meals” are loaded with sodium or sugar.

Integrating drinks that lower blood pressure [3] into a dysphagia diet takes a little forethought and knowledge, but the results are tasty (and good for you!). Hypertension-fighting beverages include:

  • Hibiscus Tea: Antioxidant-rich hibiscus tea helps lower high blood pressure possibly through the phenols and anthocyanins that act as natural ACE-inhibitors.[4] Studies also appear to show that hibiscus boosts nitric oxide production in the body which can relax and dilate arteries for better blood circulation.

  • Beet Juice: The nitrates found in beets facilitate healthy blood flow when consumed and beets are also a good source of the electrolyte Potassium, which aids the heart in maintaining a normal rhythm, amongst other beneficial properties.

A dysphagia diagnosis doesn’t have to be a sentence to only eat bland, unhealthy food for the rest of your life. With speech therapy, many people are able to strengthen mouth and throat muscles to even overcome dysphagia. For those who cannot, however, the right diet modifications and welcoming embrace of nutritious and natural foods into pureed recipes are the first steps to living a full (and tasty) life with dysphagia.

Resources: 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3426263/

[2] http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/GettheFactsAboutHighBloodPressure/The-Facts-About-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_002050_Article.jsp#.WMv54hLyuCU

[3] https://www.vivehealth.com/blogs/vive-blog/drinks-that-lower-blood-pressure

[4] http://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/herbal-remedies/lower-blood-pressure-naturally-zmgz11zrog

Image courtesy of [stockimages] at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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