Caregivers must focus on their own nutrition

Are you a family caregiver? You may not think of yourself that way, but if you spend time tending to the needs or concerns of a person with an ongoing illness, injury or disability, you are considered a caregiver. Approximately 85% of people with dementia and chronic illness are cared for exclusively in their own homes. On average, their loved ones provide 12 hours of assistance a day. That can be difficult to juggle with work and other responsibilities, and often takes an economic and physical toll. As a result, caregivers often report significant stress, depression, anxiety and fatigue.

Caregiving also can take its toll on caregiver nutrition. Limited time to cook or shop may result in reaching for sweets or picking up fast food, which don’t need a lot of preparation or advance planning. Nutrients that can fall short include protein and fluids, as well as fiber, vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables that may not be present in convenience items. That leaves the caregiver at risk of malnutrition, and in turn, more susceptible to the physical effects of stress.

The good news is that eating a healthy diet can reduce the negative effects of stress. So, while caregivers are often rightfully focused on making sure they provide healthy meals for those they care for, it is very important for caregivers to keep their own nutrition and hydration at the top of their priority list.

How can you do this to your full list of items on your “to do” list? A good way to start a new habit is to take the first few steps first. Begin with drinking beverages at each meal and two to three times between meals. Examples of healthy drinks include water, milk, juice (for those fruits and vegetables you may be missing), or non-sweetened drinks.

Next, focus on protein, a key nutrient that builds strength and provides important minerals. Ways you can add protein to your day include:

At meals, eat your protein first

Snack on cheese

Replace cereal with eggs

Top your food with chopped almonds

Choose Greek yogurt

Have a protein shake

Eat low/no fat dairy products

Include a high-protein food like fish, chicken, beef, eggs with every meal

Pair peanut butter or yogurt with fruit

Try a variety of plant proteins like nuts, peanut butter, beans and tofu

Drink a liquid supplement like Ensure or Glucerna

Dani Kebschull is the Kenai Peninsula Family Caregiver Support program coordinator.