Ensuring a person with dementia eats a balanced diet can be a challenge. Here are some common issues that may occur and how to deal with them.

Cravings for sweet foods can increase

It’s common for a person with dementia to consume excessive amounts of sweets, chocolate and cakes. Taste buds can diminish when the disease takes hold, and insulin levels in the brain can drop, causing cravings. In addition, as dementia progresses, it attacks part of the brain responsible for self-restraint in our diets.

Tip: There’s no harm in the occasional treat but ensure they aren’t replacing proper, nutritious foods.

Weight loss can occur

If the person doesn’t remember eating or eating proper meals, they may lose weight. My mum, who had vascular dementia, wasn’t eating properly and therefore lost weight. I arranged for her to have Meals On Wheels delivered every day so that she would get a proper hot meal and a pudding regularly. She soon regained the weight.

Tip: See if your loved one can get Meals On Wheels or if you or someone else in the family can prepare their meals.

Tummy upsets can occur due to food storage problems

A person with dementia may not store food correctly, and this can cause tummy problems. Foods that should have been stored in the fridge, like cheese and cured meats, can be uncovered and stored in cupboards. Foods that belong in the freezer can appear in the fridge, and out-of-date foods may not be thrown away.

Tip: Check the person’s fridge and cupboards regularly and discard old foods.

Distractions can prevent eating

Distractions at mealtimes can cause problems with eating. For example, suppose a person with dementia is trying to eat in a noisy environment, like a busy restaurant or the communal lounge in a residential home. They may be easily distracted from eating by the activity around them. This could mean they don’t finish meals.

Tip: Arrange for the person to eat in a quiet space when possible. Eat with the person if you can and monitor their eating habits.

The person may forget to eat

While a person with dementia may forget they’ve had lunch and have two lunches, they may also forget to eat.

Tip: If the person lives alone, ring them at set times and prompt them or arrange for someone to go in and make them meals or snacks. Make sure they have enough food in their home.

Check to ensure the person can eat unassisted

Dementia can affect sight as the brain has to process what we see. For example, a person with dementia may not recognise food on their plate and may not know how to eat it. They may need guidance if they seem unsure of what they should be eating or might not know to how to use cutlery.

Tip: Colours may help. For instance, if they eat at a white table, put food on a blue plate to make it stand out.

Eating in the later stages

In the later stages of the illness, you may need to cut food up or puree vegetables for your loved one. Give the person plenty of time to eat, and don’t take their plate away from them too soon.

It’s important to be aware that a person with dementia can have difficulty swallowing in the later stages of their illness, so try to offer them moist foods that are easy to eat and ensure the person is seated upright when eating. Encourage them to chew food carefully and do all you can to limit distractions. Signs of swallowing problems include chest infections, repeated coughing and clearing of the throat, fear during eating, grimacing when swallowing, or exaggerated jaw movements after chewing.