Controlling Sweet and Salty Cravings in Seniors
The tongue’s taste buds detect four tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. As we get older, the fewer taste buds we have and the less sensitive they become. In our prime, we have between 10,000 and 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 or other liquids can worsen the problem.
At the same time as taste, 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 all the flavors of a food, which can then lead to a craving for additional sugar or salt.
“Sweet” is the first taste we were exposed to as infants. Breast milk and formula are both sweet. We have also have long associated sweets with being rewarded 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 have noted that adding just a touch of sweetness to foods may help someone who has lost interest in eating. Here are some healthy snacks that are easy to make and appetizing. Make sure your loved one can handle eating some of these foods – such as popcorn or carrots. It is wise to check with his or her doctor first.
- Cut up fruit or berries with yogurt
- Cut up veggies dipped in a 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, which are sweet-tasting
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 “grabbing the sugar bowl” with activities such as taking a walk, calling a friend, listening to music, soaking in a bath, etc.
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. This could be a lifelong habit that began in youth, but seniors are likely to add increasingly more salt to their foods 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 (a disorder that occurs when the body produces insufficient amounts of certain hormones produced by the adrenal glands), and may be accompanied by other symptoms or signs, including low blood pressure (hypotension), fatigue, loss of appetite, and chronic diarrhea.
High sodium levels can lead to several medical issues, including high blood pressure, which can cause multiple health concerns such as heart problems. Unfortunately, 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 equals just a little more than 1/2 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 that are 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 with more sodium.
- 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.
Remember: Seniors should consult with their doctors to determine safe dietary practices that take into account medication interactions, and other health issues.