The term ‘tea and toast diet’ was coined to describe the poor dietary habits commonly seen in the elderly. The diet may not literally be restricted to only tea and toast but accurately describes the more popular choice of food and drink amongst the elderly of most cultural and geographical groups. What it does signify though is that the nutrition is poor and often insufficient to maintain health at a time in one’s life when the body is already facing many age and disease related obstacles.
This minimal diet and poor eating habits may be present for several reasons in the elderly. Firstly there is a change in appetite with age and many are not hungry or do not well tolerate complex foods. This can sometimes be related to the side effects of certain medication used to treat chronic conditions. Secondly, there may be difficulty in eating other foods due to problems with the dentition (teeth), swallowing or digestion.
Other factors that may account for the poor dietary habits among the elderly could be due to difficulty in sourcing and preparing more nutritious foods. Age-related problems with movement, disabilities due to other diseases and even the gradual deterioration of senses like vision can make tasks like shopping and cooking very difficult. An often under-reported factor is the financial aspect and many senior citizens may simply not be able to afford food beyond these basic and often cheap items.
Lastly problems with memory and mental faculties may cause an older person to forget to eat or even not comprehend the potential dangers of eating such a basic diet. Ignorance about the importance of good nutrition even in lder persons with intact mental faculty no doubt plays a role in this as well. There is a misconception that one meal a day is sufficient for the dietary needs of the elderly due to a less active lifestyle associated with age. This is untrue – while the meal size may be smaller than earlier in life or with greater physical activity, it is essential to have a minimum of three meals a day.
The list of adverse effects associated with poor nutrition is almost endless. This is further compounded by the fact that the elderly are more likely to suffer with chronic ailments and more prone to illnesses like colds and flus. Constipation, dizziness, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), peptic ulcers, paleness of the skin, loss of weight and even episodes of fainting may be the more obvious symptoms of poor nutrition.
However, the effects of limited nutrition extends well beyond these features. It may not be obvious at the outset but can cause serious and even life threatening consequences. This is due to deficiencies in various macronutrients like protein and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and salts). Eventually this can complicate underlying disorders and lead to changes with blood pressure, heart rhythm, blood disorders, immunity, liver and kidney functioning and disturbances in just about every other system and life sustaining process.
Despite an awareness of proper nutrition, the elderly may not be able or willing to eat more nutritious meals for any number of reasons. The easiest option is a meal replacement supplement that is ideally suited for complete nutrition for the elderly. These supplements are available in powder form and can be mixed with milk or water to make a nutritious drink. However, it is intended only to replace the odd meal and does not preclude the need for eating healthy food and having a balanced diet.
Soups may be better tolerated and can be just as nutritious as a complete meal. It does require some degree of preparation that may not always be a possible for the elderly. Canned soups cannot match the nutrition of home prepared varieties but may be a short term solution when unwell and unwilling to eat. Even meat and vegetable broths containing no solids can be a temporary option for nutrition and is better tolerated than soup.
Fruits are soft nutritious options for snacks and as part of a meal. Plant-based proteins and dairy may be a suitable alternative for those who cannot tolerate meat products. Egg “whites” may also be better tolerated than the yolk and along with dairy, it is still sufficiently rich in protein to prevent deficiencies. Nutritional supplements in the form of multivitamin tablets and syrups should be used on an ongoing basis with the approval of a doctor. Certain formulations are specifically developed for the elderly.