Nutrition, eating and serious illness

Sharing food is one way we nurture and care for those we love. When a seriously ill family member doesn’t eat, it can be very distressing!

Food is also intimately connected with health. In fact, your loved one may have conditions that require special diets. Not following those diets may feel scary.

Nutritional rules change quite a bit when a person is in the advanced stages of a serious condition.

Below are some thoughts to help you understand more about food and serious illness.


Advanced illness and special diets

Specialized diets are known to have a very positive impact on serious conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Sometimes the difference shows up in daily life. A well-managed diet for a diabetic helps him or her feel much better. Low- or no-salt diets reduce swelling and remove the pain or discomfort of edema for someone with heart disease.

Sometimes the benefits are more invisible or long-term. A low fat diet reduces the chance of a heart attack. Important, but not immediately noticeable.

Certainly if your loved one is healthy and active, it is wise to stick to these special diets as much as possible. But in the case of an advanced illness, there are other factors to consider.

Quality of life is important
For instance, the American Dietetic Association supports more-relaxed diets for the frail elderly. After all, eating is not just for nutrition! Food has many social, cultural, and emotional meanings. They have a strong influence on how much we enjoy life.

Comfort foods
Eating foods for comfort may be more important for the frail elderly. For a person in the advanced stages of an illness, the joy from eating foods higher in fat may outweigh the benefits of a low fat diet.

What seems more important right now: Quality of life or the risks of going off a restricted diet?
Return to top

Nutritional needs at the end of life

It can be very upsetting when a seriously ill family member doesn’t eat. But not eating, or eating less, can be a very normal part of the disease process.

Reduced need for food
Sometimes forcing someone to eat can make things worse. If the person you care for is near the end of life, his or her body does not have enough strength to handle digestion. Breathing, thinking, and fighting the disease are all the body can do. In some situations, digesting and going to the bathroom can be painful. For instance, eating may prompt vomiting, diarrhea, or bloating.

Reduced need for water
Toward the end of a person’s life, even drinking water can make it difficult to breathe. The body simply can’t process the fluids well. The extra fluids add to a buildup of fluid in the lungs.

Food and fluids at the very end of life appear to cause more distress than going without.

What arises for you emotionally if you were to let your loved one eat as he or she wishes?
Return to top