Dementia and food: a big appetite or no appetite?

No two people will have the same experience of dementia. And it’s not just about memories being lost. Dementia can also affect the way someone feels, thinks, behaves, speaks and how they perceive things. Some people can stay independent for years, with symptoms getting gradually worse. For others, changes may happen swiftly.

One area that may affect someone with dementia is their appetite. Food may not quite taste or smell like it once did, their appetite may shrink, they may find it difficult to prepare or cook food, they may have issues with chewing or swallowing, or the person with dementia may often forget to eat at mealtimes.

No appetite

Encouraging someone with dementia to eat can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. But by taking away the pressure of the situation and trying different techniques, you’ll help to create a safe environment to let them take it at their own pace. Here are a few tips that may help boost their appetite:

  • Big smells such as freshly baked bread (a par-baked mini bread roll baked in the oven if time is limited), fairy cakes, garlic bread or brewed coffee are all great at getting the taste buds tantalised.

  • Keep portions small. A big plate of food may be daunting to someone with a small appetite and keep them from eating any of it. Put a couple of bites onto a plate and let them come back for more food is they so wish.

  • As taste buds change, you’ll want to use bright coloured foods with varying textures and strength of flavours.

  • Keep easy to access snacks around the place for the person with dementia to dip into when they feel like it.

  • Try different times for meals and snacks, there might be a better time to encourage the person with dementia to eat.

  • High calorie milkshakes or smoothies or soft foods such as scrambled eggs or porridge might be an easier option for someone who finds swallowing difficult.

  • Ask the person with dementia to help you in the kitchen. Whether it’s setting the table, washing or peeling the vegetables, stirring the soup, custard or gravy in the saucepan on the stove, or simply helping you pick what to have. Getting the person with dementia to help in some way will let them feel involved in the process and more likely to eat even a little bit of the food they’ve helped to prepare.

  • Is the food too hot? Are they not sure what to do with the food? Are they being rushed? Do they not like the food? Is the environment challenging to them? Look for non-verbal clues and eye contact as a means of communication.

  • Are they in pain? Oral hygiene is important, sore gums, problems with dentures or painful teeth may make eating uncomfortable.

  • Loss of appetite can also be a sign of depression. If you believe the person with dementia may have depression, speak to their GP.

Big appetite

The opposite may also be true for someone with dementia in which they may overeat. This might be due to forgetting that they have already recently eaten, and may as a result begin eating things that aren’t good for them or non-food items.

  • Eating out of boredom is a habit lots of people can relate to. Try to distract them with something that isn’t food related to keep their focus elsewhere.

  • Avoid serving a whole portion. Keep back some of the meal to serve later if they ask for it.

  • Fill most of the plate with salad or vegetables.

  • Keep healthy bite-size snacks around and easily accessible for them to chomp on.

  • Offer milkshakes, smoothies or hot chocolate instead of more food.

  • If the person with dementia is eating things that aren’t food, removing these items and offering a snack as a distraction might be the best solution.

If you are struggling with the dietary requirements for the person with dementia, speak to their GP and ask for a referral to a dietician.