March is National Nutrition Awareness month, which puts a much-needed focus on the foods we eat and what those foods do to help or hinder our physical, cognitive and emotional health. For individuals living with dementia, nutrition holds special importance, in that we now are more aware of the power of nutrients to optimize cognitive health. So, infusing diets with these nutrients can make a difference in how well an individual can retain mental acuity, memory and other areas of health as they relate to cognition.
What are these nutrients and how can those of you caring for loved ones with dementia ensure that they receive the benefits of them?
The Alzheimer’s Association has published guidelines specifically geared to support those living with dementia and help them gain optimum nutritional value in the foods they eat.
Here are a few things to keep in mind that we hope you will find useful:
- Not all fats are created equal. Limit foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol, such as butter and shortening. Avocados, fish and walnuts, however, are a source of healthy fat.
- Satisfying the sweet tooth naturally. Refined sugars are the culprit here, often found in processed foods (donuts, pop-up pastries, etc.). While they are chocked full of calories, they lack vitamins, minerals and fiber. Often a juicy piece of fruit or drizzling a bit of honey over cereal can go a long ways towards satisfying the desire for something sweet.
- Less salt, more taste. High quantities of salt can throw the body off balance, and it is known to raise blood pressure. Try substituting fresh herbs and spices to make meals more appealing.
- Balance, balance, balance! Physician-approved programs such as the Mediterranean Diet provide a balanced variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy and lean protein. Your loved one’s physician or nutrition can help you tailor a diet to their dietary needs and preferences.
Individuals with dementia, especially in the mid to later stages of the disease, can quickly become overwhelmed with having too many food choices, immobilizing them and leading to either not eating or reaching for a fast and easy (and often not healthy) food choice. They may also simply forget to eat or believe they have already had a meal. All of these issues can lead to malnutrition, lacking key vitamins and minerals their bodies need to function properly.
If you are caring for a loved one who lives with dementia, take the time to evaluate their daily food intake. Take notes of what they eat, along with what their taste preferences are. Then you can begin to design a daily menu that will be appealing to them, while satisfying their daily nutritional needs.