Dangers of Nutritional Drinks for Elders


“My elderly mother isn’t eating and she has lost a lot of weight. Should I give her a nutrition supplement drink to replace the meals she should be eating?”

Under-nutrition due to lack of eating is a common problem among elderly people. It is also dangerous. Under-nutrition and extreme thinness can lead to higher mortality rates, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It is a problem that can’t be ignored.

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Geriatricians (specialists in treating the elderly) take weight loss among the elderly very seriously and caregivers should, too. However, some caregivers feel that feeding their parent a nutrition supplement drink, such as Boost, in lieu of meals ensures the elderly loved one is getting the nutrition they need. This isn’t the case, according to Dr. Amy Ehrlich, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine and Interim Division Head of Montefiore Medical Center’s Geriatrics Division.

“Just giving them a can of Ensure for dinner isn’t enough,” she says. “It is always better to try to use regular food to maintain a person’s weight.” If a caregiver wants to use nutrition drinks, they should be used between meals, as a snack or supplement to add calories to the senior’s diet – not as a meal replacement.

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Think Twice About Giving Elders Nutritional Drinks or Shakes originally appeared on AgingCare.com.

Work with a doctor to determine elder’s nutrition needs

Weight loss is a marker of frailty. However, it is not a normal part of aging. Dr. Ehrlich stresses that it is critical to find out what is causing the senior’s loss of interest in food. A doctor should conduct a detailed medical evaluation to determine the cause of loss in appetite and weight loss. “There are a variety of treatable conditions that could be the culprit: ulcers, thyroid disease, dementia, depression, even ill-fitting dentures. All are treatable, so rather than immediately turning to a supplement, work with your doctor to address the cause of the problem,” Dr Ehrlich says.

If a caregiver does decide a nutrition drink is right for their elderly loved one, a doctor should still be consulted to determine the type of supplement to use. For example, diabetics must choose a low-sugar product.

Frail elderly have different nutrition requirements

There is a misperception that frail elderly people should adhere to the same low-fat, low-calorie diet that is recommended for the general population. However, Dr. Ehrlich says that for frail elderly who have substantial weight loss, the opposite is true. “I’ll see a 94-year-old person who is losing weight and he is restricting everything, eating a low-calorie, low-fat diet. It would be better to eat a bowl of ice cream, for the caloric intake!”

Elders who have experienced weight loss should eat what they like. And don’t be afraid to incorporate eggs, cheese, peanut butter…even ice cream into the diet. There is no need for low-fat milk or cheese.

Elders often can’t (or don’t want to) eat three large meals a day. Rather, encourage them to have smaller, more frequent meals, including snacks, even before bed.

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Think Twice About Giving Elders Nutritional Drinks or Shakes originally appeared on AgingCare.com.

Nutrition drinks and supplements can interact with medications

Supplements, including nutrition drinks, can cause dangerous drug interactions in the same way prescription medications do.

Medicines at War Within the Body

If an elder is taking prescription and over-the-counter drugs and supplements, the drugs may conflict and, basically, go to war against each other, while also damaging otherwise functioning body organs and systems. Check with your doctor to avoid interactions. “I encourage my patients to bring in all their medications, supplements and vitamins, so I can check for possible interactions. I call it the ‘brown bag visit,’ ” Dr. Ehrlich says. As an example, vitamin supplements may negatively interact with blood thinners like Coumadin.

The bottom line is that nutrition drinks are a not a magic fix for lack of eating or under-nutrition. These products are not bad when used as a dietary aid and supplement to regular meals. However, they should not be used as a meal replacement for elders – especially those who are frail or thin.

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Think Twice About Giving Elders Nutritional Drinks or Shakes originally appeared on AgingCare.com.


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Brian M.
Past Member 2 years ago

If my mother didn't have her nutritional shakes every day, she would probably wither away. She does eat three real meals of solid food a day, but her appetite is so poor...that the meals are frequently rather puny. There are some good shakes out there.

Lika S.
Lika S.3 years ago

Well, duh. Of course it shouldn't be used as a meal replacement, but, what do you do for a 90+ year old person, who just doesn't have the appetite to eat much? The nutrition drinks are better than just drinking a glass of chocolate milk instead, or sleeping extra to make up for the lack of nutritional intake.

And no, as a home care aid, I don't worry my elderly patients with healthy stuff. If they want a fried egg a day with toast and real butter, go for it, because it helps them maintain their weight. I also encourage bananas and other fruits to ensure the calorie intake. It's just they don't eat enough to be able to maintain, so, they drink that nutrition stuff to help get the nutrients they need. Many still lose weight, but, it keeps them going.

When the time comes that they are ready, they won't want to eat or drink. Then switch to water, if they want it. Forcing it on someone who is actively dying is actually elderly abuse. The 96 year old lady I take care of occasionally has chocolate for breakfast. Good for her.

Masha Samoilova
Past Member 3 years ago

thanks, good to know

heather g.
heather g.3 years ago

I found it interesting that one reader had read the ingredients. There is a huge array of healthy Smoothie drinks that would always be a better option to make and far more nutritional - but I would leave off the ice. Fresh nutritional ingredients are always better and this goes for soups as well.

Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M.3 years ago

This article is very informative. I myself was going to start on Ensure or Boost, whichever I liked best, as the Doctor had some on his front counter, so my mistake in thinking they would be ok to take. I take supplements, heart medication and anti-depressants, so I will be checking with all three doctors.
On the subject of the elderly, my Dr. calls ones who don't eat properly 'The Tea and Toast Syndrome'.

Suzanne Loewen
SuzanneAWAY L.3 years ago

thank you.

Jennifer V.
Jennifer V.3 years ago


Deborah Vitek
Deborah Vitek3 years ago

"Nutritional drinks" are not Ensure or Boost, they are mostly sugar and should NEVER be used. A homemade milkshake would be far healthier.

And gee, old people who are not eating...maybe they are getting ready to die. That is okay, you know. We all eventually die and trying to prevent it for a month or two just usually means more suffering. Let people die without pain and with love and support when it is time.

federico bortoletto

Grazie per le informazioni

Judi M.
Judi M.3 years ago

when my best friend was battling cancer with chemo and no longer had an appetite, these nutitional drinks were heavensent.