PLYMOUTH — The tongue's taste buds detect four tastes, sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. As people age, they have fewer taste buds and those become less sensitive. At peak health, people have 10,000-15,000 taste buds. By age 70, many seniors have lost two out of three, so the sense of taste declines, and foods begin to taste more bland.
Medications or chronic medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, can affect taste. Aging can also decrease the production of saliva. A dry mouth is common for many seniors, and not drinking enough water can worsen the problem.
At the same time, the sense of smell, which contributes to taste, declines. Nerve endings in the nose tend to decrease after age 70. Smoking also causes loss of smell. These factors can change one's ability to taste flavors of food, which can lead to cravings for additional sugar or salt.
Sweet is the first taste to which infants are exposed. Breast milk and formula are both sweet. People have also have long associated sweets with being a reward for doing something good.
Seniors may crave sweets if they don’t consume enough carbohydrates to meet the body’s energy needs. Prevent this type of craving by not allowing seniors to skip meals, encouraging them to eat a snack even if
they don’t feel hungry, and including complex carbs such as whole grains, protein, and fats in meals.
That said, many caregivers note that adding just a touch of sweetness to foods may help someone who has lost interest in eating.
Many healthy snacks are easy to make and appetizing. Make sure a loved one can handle eating some the food, such as popcorn or carrots. Check with his or her doctor first before preparing. Here are some ideas:
- Cut up fruit or berries with yogurt
- Cut up veggies dipped in nut butter
- Popcorn sprinkled with cinnamon
- Plain rice cakes drizzled with honey
- Dried fruit
- Unsweetened granola with fresh fruit
- Dried apples with cinnamon yogurt dip
- Applesauce with cinnamon
- Fruit and cottage cheese
- Baby carrots
For most, a pinch of sweetness is not usually a calorie or carbohydrate problem. Even diabetics can enjoy a little sweetness, although it may not come directly from sugar. Many sugar-free products can be used to add sweetness to food without jeopardizing a diabetic diet. Seniors should consult with their doctors.
If sugar cravings are causing health problems, however, the senior should replace adding sugar with activities such as taking a walk, calling a friend, listening to music, or soaking in a bath. Food and the act of eating stimulate endorphins and feel good. The key is finding other activities that also feel good.
Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is needed for normal functions of the body, but most people consume too much. Many seniors reach for the salt shaker at every meal, adding increasing amounts due to loss of taste. Nearly 75% of salt intake tends to come from the shaker or food manufacturing process.
A salt craving may last only as long as it takes to rehydrate after mild dehydration from heavy sweating. It may be a permanent symptom, as is found with Addison’s disease, and may be accompanied by other symptoms or signs, including low blood pressure, fatigue, loss of appetite, and chronic diarrhea.
High sodium levels can lead to medical issues, including high blood pressure, which can cause health concerns like heart problems. Hypertension is often a silent condition with few side effects until permanent damage is done. By lowering added salt and making healthy choices of foods lower in sodium, seniors may enjoy a healthier lifestyle as they age.
The FDA recommends a daily intake of no more than 1,500 mg of salt per day for the majority of middle-aged and older adults. That is just a little more than a half teaspoon of salt. Some doctors may recommend less salt intake due to certain medical conditions. Tips for decreasing salt in the diet include:
- Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, especially green, leafy ones.
- Look for foods high in potassium.
- Try seasoning foods with pepper, spices, and herbs.
- Choose unsalted varieties of snacks, such as unsalted peanuts or plain air-popped popcorn.
- Make more foods from scratch rather than eating processed foods.
- Read food labels, looking for foods with 5% or less of the recommended daily allowance of sodium.
- Check with a healthcare provider before using salt substitutes.
Seniors should consult with their doctors to determine safe dietary practices that take into account medication interactions and other health issues.
Comfort Keepers can help
Making healthy meals and snacks can be a shared experience. Ask about
the many ways professional caregivers can help. Interactive Caregiving provides a system of care that addresses safety, nutrition, mind, body, and activities of daily living. Call 603-536-6060 or visit www.nhcomfortkeepers.com for more information.