Nutrition For The Sick

It’s that time of year again where all the nasty viruses and infections bring us and our loved ones down for a bit. Proper nutrition can be a major key to recovery. Even still, there are some among us dealing with more serious illnesses where optimal nutrition is even more crucial to the healing process. Our family is still trying to cope with the immense loss of a loved one last month, that despite all nutrition interventions I tried with her, our loved one did not survive her aggressive, brief bout with cancer (see dedication at the end). So yes, I have seen personally that there are times when nutrition is not enough.  While in other instances, medical nutrition therapy is a vital component of a patient’s care, prevention of complications and ultimate recovery. Although this is a subject that could be discussed for days, this post very briefly covers the role of food and nutrition for those who are sick with minor, major and terminal illness.
Minor Illnesses
Most of us will only deal with minor illnesses that pass in a matter of days. My 3 year old son recently came down with strep throat and it was no fun watching him be so uncomfortable in his own body. He ran a high fever for 3 days and during that time, he did not eat one calorie. Ack!  Don’t you know, I hated it.  Even when we gave him a fever reducer medicine, he would not eat. Luckily, we were able to get an electrolyte replacement fluid in him throughout the days. If you are your child is sick and unable to eat, make sure fluids are still being taken in. For high fevers or those that are vomiting or have chronic diarrhea, an electrolyte beverage such as Pedialyte, Gatorade or CeraLyte are important to drink over water. When dehydrated, water can actually further the dehydration process since dehydration is not just about fluid loss, but loss of electrolytes as well. Do not worry too much when there is little to no food intake during these brief illnesses because any weight loss can be re-gained after getting better. My son little body lost 2 ½ pounds during strep throat, but luckily he has completed his 10-day regimen of antibiotics and is eating well again. I expect him to re-gain any lost weight.  During any minor illness, consider eating small, bland meals that are easy to digest until you are feeling better.
Major Illnesses
Major illness are what I would consider any illness lasting greater than 2 weeks or are chronic in nature. I work with many children and adults that are chronically ill and adequate calorie intake is my most important goal for them. For children, long term weight loss or failure to gain will result in loss of length/height growth. We have a window of opportunity to grow these children optimally so we must do all means necessary to get adequate total calories in them. With adults, a loss of 10% or greater over 3 months or less can cause the immune system to be compromised. Even if they were overweight to begin with, drastic rapid weight loss is not a good thing during major illnesses. Quality nutrition – high produce and antioxidant foods – would be great in a major illness, but many times sick people are very tired and eating is a challenging chore. Adequate calories is the ultimate goal with quality nutrition coming in as a close second.  On my website, I have a free resource page that includes an educational sheet that assists with healthy weight gain/weight stabilization and I also have a sheet on a high calorie liquid diet including smoothies and supplement ideas to maximize calories. In major illnesses, I highly recommend a visit with your local Registered Dietitian to do a full and complete nutrition assessment that will come with a customized medical nutrition therapy plan.  You can find one in your area by going to ADA’s Find a Registered Dietitan page.
End of Life Nutrition
End of life and hospice nutrition really is a different issue altogether. All medical efforts have been exhausted and the person is still dying. I have had the honor of working with some of these patients in their homes and what their loved ones need to know is that under nutrition can actually act as an anesthetic. It can dull the senses which can assist with some pain control. In some cases, feeding can actually cause pain if their intestines or complementary organs are not working correctly.  The biggest goal in hospice/end of life nutrition is to comfort the patient. After all, a patient that is dying does not have many decisions they can make so deciding to eat or not to eat should be theirs and theirs only (if conscious). As a dietitian that works in hospice care, we educate on the risks associated with eating certain foods so the patient and their family can make an informed decision. Many of these people are at risk for aspirating food into their lungs, which could put them at risk for pneumonia. If this patient still had a shot at getting better, we would not allow them to eat certain textures. But in hospice care, we allow the patient and/or their families make that decision.
Whatever the illness may be in your or your loved one’s life, know the important use of food and nutrition. It has the power to recover and stabilize in many instances. But in others, allow food and nutrition be an individual’s choice.  In both instances, food can provide nourishment to the soul and that is a good thing.
Stay Healthy/Preventing Illness Resources:
Eat For Immunity using American Dietetic Association’s Public Resources
CDC’s Family Health Page
Kid’s Health From Nemours: Keeping Your Children Healthy
End of Life Nutrition:
Hospice Foundation of America on Nutrition & Hydration
This blog post is dedicated to what I believe was the best mother-in-law in the world. Oh, I so miss our conversations and special times we had together. You were such a beautiful woman inside and out. It was truly inspiring how you loved your family and how you empowered those around you to be better people. Thank you for being a Mommy Dietitian blog follower and one of my biggest cheerleaders for my nutrition consulting practice.  I am a better wife, mother, woman and entrepreneur from learning by your incredible example.  I will be forever grateful for how you raised your son, my husband, to be one of the greatest men I have ever known.  Your grandchildren miss their Nanny, and are sad you left this world so soon and so suddenly. But we find comfort in knowing that we will see you again someday. We love you, Beverly.