As a caregiver, with many clients, you will be responsible for their nutritional needs. This might include cooking for them, feeding them or helping them eat, helping them build healthier dietary choices, or sometimes just encouraging them to eat.
Eating sounds like such a basic thing, something that you don’t need to give a second thought to, but in a caregiver’s line of work, it can oftentimes be fraught with difficulty.
Whether it’s because your client has difficulty swallowing, because of their poor dietary habits, and sometimes even because of something as simple as pickiness - it might take a lot of forethought and patience on your part to ensure that they are getting adequate nutrition.
Factors Affecting Adequate Nutrition
There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration when you are considering whether a person’s diet is adequate. A person’s age, weight, general health, and specific health conditions should all be taken into account when determining a diet plan for a client.
There are also important factors that might affect how much and what a client eats, and how well nourished they are.
Physical health is the most important factor affecting adequate and proper nutrition. A person’s ability to ingest, digest, and transport food is affected by poor absorption, metabolism, and disease conditions. Medications for certain diseases can also affect nutrition, and vice versa - certain foods can affect how well medications work.
Emotional and Mental Health
Emotional and mental health also affect nutritional status. Trauma and disease cause periods of increased stress during which the body needs extra nutrients. At the same time, appetite decreases, which can make this more difficult.
Appetite can also be affected by mental health conditions. Research shows that in patients with depression, as many as 66% suffer from a loss of appetite. Another 14% saw an increase in appetite, while 20% of patients had no change in food intake.
To combat emotional-related loss of appetite, all foods should be high in nutritional content and calories. It also might be worth it to offer small amounts of food frequently. Supplements such as protein drinks may help too.
Age and Background
Age, ethnic background, culture, activity level, social background, and family situation play a part in nutrition. This is definitely something to take into consideration and talk about with your client.
Some ethnic backgrounds that may have special food habits include the following:
Chinese: rice, eggs, vegetables, ﬁsh, and pork cooked by stir-frying with soy sauce.
Japanese: tofu, rice, fruits, vegetables, and raw or cooked ﬁsh.
Mediterranean: pasta, grains, seafood, garlic, onions, and olives.
Middle Eastern: marinated meats, pita bread, beans, and rice.
Indian: vegetables, curry and spicy foods, rice, and baked bread.
Mexican: spicy foods, corn, and ﬂour tortillas, beans, cheese, sauces.
Sometimes elderly people may have a poor appetite or may even have dentures and gum problems. Painful chewing can decrease a person’s desire to eat. If you notice or suspect that your client might be facing these kinds of problems, it should be discussed with their healthcare team.
Activity level also aﬀects a person's nutrition. Decreased physical activity can reduce energy demands. With in-home care, a good way to increase appetite and activity level is to involve the client and family in food preparation. A client can peel potatoes and cut vegetables while seated or in a wheelchair, for example.
Depending on their general health and mobility, some light exercise or short walks might also be beneficial. However, this should be first discussed with their doctor.
Social circumstances and daily habits can also aﬀect nutrition, especially if the client frequently dines out or eats a lot of ready-made processed meals.
In-home care, restaurant delivery, Meals on Wheels, and similar programs are good alternatives for the household without someone to cook.
In any setting, social interaction may encourage better eating habits. With in-home care, the client's family situation is an important consideration in nutrition and meal planning. All other factors are tied to the family situation.
Consider whether the client has someone to prepare their meals and shop for food. Clients who don’t have immediate or extended family in the area and who are not able to cook for themselves might have poor nutrition and need extra support.
How to Make Sure Your Client’s Nutritional Needs Are Met
Making sure a client’s nutritional needs are met is a complex task. Here are some things to take into consideration.
Make Sure All Food Groups Are Represented in Their Diet
For a balanced diet, it’s best to follow the food group pyramid. Grains should represent the biggest portion of the diet, followed by fruits and vegetables. Clients should also eat dairy, meat, and healthy fats. Clients should consume fresh, whole foods as much as possible and avoid processed foods, as well as those that contain too much sodium, sugar or unhealthy fats.
Take Into Consideration Their Likes and Dislikes
Any person's food likes and dislikes are an important part of meal planning. When a diet is decided upon, a list of likes and dislikes can be made. Tastes may also change during the course of an illness. Some illnesses as well as some medications can affect the sense of taste or smell.
Stay Within the Budget
Cost is always a factor aﬀecting nutrition. Fresh foods can be expensive, especially protein sources. Sometimes the budget doesn’t allow for certain foods and others may have to be substituted.
The Four "Ps" of Proper Nutrition
The four “Ps” of proper nutrition are steps that can help you make sure your client has adequate nutrition.
A meal plan is essential to considering the special likes and dislikes of the client as well as special diets ordered by the physician. All the factors discussed must be considered in the planning. Planning can also save you time and ensure that all of the groceries are used optimally for nutritious, cost-effective meals.
When the plan is created, the next step is to purchase the food. Decisions such as who will shop, when, and what the food budget will be must be made. It’s important to time the shopping so that someone is available to cook the food, and make sure to keep track of safe food storage times to reduce waste.
Once you have a plan and the ingredients, it’s time to prepare the food. Work out in advance who will be cooking the food, and how the food should be prepared. Depending on the ingredients, certain methods of cooking might be better than others when it comes to preserving the nutrients in the ingredients.
How the food looks is very important. It’s a valuable method to tempt a client with a poor appetite. Remember also to keep the portions small or use small plates if your client is struggling with eating. Smaller portions don't seem so overwhelming to the ill client.
Breaking unhealthy dietary habits or helping a client who suffers from loss of appetite requires a lot of effort and patience. However, a healthy diet is the basis of a healthier life, and putting in the work is one of the best things you can do for your client’s well-being.