Dementia and Eating Sweets: A Dietitian’s Advice

Dementia profoundly impacts individuals’ lives, altering their cognitive abilities and daily routines. One notable change in eating behaviour is the newfound connection between dementia and eating sweets. 

As a Registered Dietitian who has worked with patients with dementia for over a decade, I have frequently seen an increase in sweets intake.  While I don’t encourage restricting all sweets with dementia, there does need to be a balance.  Ensuring optimal nutrition for overall health is important. 

I will help you find the balance of allowing sweets and promoting optimal nutrition to prevent malnutrition, and ageing well.

elderly man sitting down eating a piece of cake off a plate full of cake.

Understanding Dementia

Dementia encompasses a range of neurological conditions, primarily affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities. Dementia goes by many different names, here are the ten currently known:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Vascular Dementia
  • Lewy Body Dementia
  • Frontotemporal Dementia
  • Mixed Dementia
  • Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease
  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

These conditions can significantly alter eating behaviours, including preferences for certain types of food like sweets. Recognizing these changes is essential for providing appropriate nutritional support and enhancing the quality of life for those affected.

Eating Behaviours in Dementia

Dementia significantly alters an individual’s relationship with food, leading to noticeable changes in eating behaviours and food preferences. There are differences between the early stages of dementia, where not many nutrition changes are noted, and later stages.  

In later stages we see dementia severely impacting a person’s nutrition status.  This will be discussed in a future article.  

But in the earlier stages, we see a common shift towards an increased craving for sweets.  The reasons behind this shift are multifaceted, involving both physiological changes in the brain and psychological factors. 

As dementia affects the brain’s areas responsible for taste and smell, patients may find sweet foods more appealing because these senses are less impaired compared to others. 

In studies it also shows that sweets can evoke pleasant memories, providing comfort in a world that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to them.

Managing these changes requires a delicate balance. Caregivers must strive to satisfy these cravings in a way that does not compromise the overall nutritional needs of the patient. 

This involves creative dietary planning that includes healthy sweets and emphasizes nutrient-dense foods to ensure a balanced intake.

Why Do Dementia Patients Crave Sweets?

The craving for sweets among dementia patients can be attributed to several physiological and psychological reasons. It is also more frequently seen in patients that have frontotemporal dementia.

Physiologically, dementia can alter taste buds and the brain’s reward system, making sweet flavours more appealing and satisfying. These changes are often due to the deterioration of cognitive functions and sensory perceptions, including taste and smell, which are less affected by sweet flavours.

Psychologically, sweets are often associated with comfort and pleasure. For individuals with dementia, sweet foods can evoke positive memories from the past, providing a sense of familiarity and security in a world that may seem increasingly confusing and unfamiliar. This emotional connection can make sweets particularly appealing to those with dementia.

The craving for sweets can also be a response to emotional needs or a form of self-soothing in the face of anxiety, depression, or agitation, which are common in dementia patients. 

Recognizing and understanding these cravings is crucial for caregivers. It allows for the incorporation of healthier sweet options into the diet, ensuring that the nutritional needs are met while also providing emotional comfort and satisfaction.

Impact of Sweets on Dementia Patients

The consumption of sweets can have varied impacts on dementia patients, raising concerns about nutritional balance and health implications. While sweets can offer comfort and satisfy cravings, excessive intake can lead to nutritional imbalances.

Sweets can take the place of more nutritionally valuable foods such as high fiber foods, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and high protein options.  

While inherently there is nothing wrong with sweets in the diet, knowing that patients with dementia are at a 57.43% high risk of malnutrition.  Ensuring optimal nutrient intake is essential to prevent early mortality risk. 

It’s essential to monitor the amount and type of sweets consumed to prevent potential or exacerbating current health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and dental problems.

Nutrition plays an important role in the overall health and well-being of dementia patients. A diet high in added sugars and low in essential nutrients can worsen cognitive decline and negatively affect physical health.

Balancing the desire for sweets with the need for a nutritious diet involves offering healthier alternatives that still satisfy sweet cravings. 

Options like fruits, naturally sweet vegetables, and snacks low in added sugars can provide the sweetness desired while also supplying vital nutrients. This approach ensures that dementia patients enjoy their food while maintaining a balanced diet that supports their health and cognitive function.

Dietary Management for Dementia Patients

Working with patients with dementia for as long as I have, I can attest that no two patients will be similar.  But there are certain overarching strategies that can help in managing sweets intake in dementia. If you’re looking for exact foods that I recommend for people with dementia, read 15 Best Foods for Dementia Patients to Eat!

Here are my top ten tips to managing sweets cravings in people with dementia.

Offer healthy alternatives like fruits or smoothies.

  • Provide options that satisfy the sweet tooth with natural sugars, like fresh fruits, berries, or homemade smoothies. These alternatives are healthier and can help manage cravings for sweets.
two seniors enjoying a piece of watermelon.

Keep sweets out of sight to encourage well-rounded snacking.

  • Store sweets in opaque containers or in places that are not easily accessible. If sweets are not immediately visible, the temptation to consume them may be reduced.

Provide smaller portions of sweets.

  • When sweets are consumed, offer them in small portions. This can help satisfy the craving for sweets without consuming large amounts.  Also provide them in addition to snacks that are a good source of protein and fiber too.  

Establish regular, balanced meal patterns.

  • Consistent meal times with balanced nutrition can help stabilize blood sugar levels and reduce cravings for sweets. Include a variety of foods from all food groups.  People with dementia do well when there are regular meals provided and a routine.

Use natural sweeteners like stevia or honey in moderation.

  • When sweetening foods or beverages, opt for natural sweeteners and use them sparingly. These can provide the sweetness desired without the negative effects of refined sugars.

Encourage hydration with water or herbal teas.

  • Sometimes thirst is mistaken for hunger or cravings. Encouraging regular intake of water or unsweetened herbal teas can help manage cravings for sweets.

Engage in distracting activities or hobbies.

  • Boredom or stress can lead to cravings for sweets. Engaging in activities or hobbies can distract from these cravings and provide a sense of fulfillment that doesn’t come from food.

Ensure adequate protein and fiber intake in meals.

  • Meals rich in protein and fiber can help keep one feeling full longer and stabilize blood sugar levels, which in turn can reduce cravings for sweets.

Limit access to sugary snacks and beverages.

  • Avoid buying sugary snacks and beverages. Having options available and ready for them that meet their nutrition needs makes it easier to choose them over sweets.

Educate caregivers on the importance of balanced nutrition.

  • Caregivers should understand the importance of a balanced diet and how it affects overall health, including the management of cravings for sweets. This knowledge can help them make better nutritional choices for those in their care.

Managing the dietary needs of dementia patients requires a thoughtful balance between indulging sweet cravings and ensuring a nutritious diet. By focusing on healthier alternatives and maintaining a holistic approach to meal planning, caregivers can significantly contribute to the well-being and happiness of those in their care.

Final Thoughts

Understanding and managing the dietary preferences of dementia patients, particularly their increased craving for sweets, is a delicate balance that requires attention, compassion, and knowledge. 

While sweets can offer comfort and evoke pleasant memories, it’s crucial to navigate these cravings with a focus on nutritional balance and overall health. The strategies discussed, from offering healthier sweet alternatives to incorporating a variety of nutrient-dense foods, aim to enhance the quality of life for those living with dementia.

Caregivers and healthcare professionals play a pivotal role in this process, crafting meal plans that not only satisfy cravings but also support cognitive health and physical well-being. Food is not just about meeting needs, we also need to balance it with quality of life.  

So if an individual with dementia is wanting some sweets, they should not be denied every type of sweet.  But there does need to be the balance of meeting nutritional needs to maintain health, and providing a quality of life treat they enjoy.  No two individuals are alike, especially with dementia.  They each need to be treated with respect, dignity, and cared for in the best way possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can eating sweets cause dementia?

There is no direct evidence that consuming sweets causes dementia. However, a diet high in sugar and unhealthy fats over time can contribute to health issues like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, which are risk factors for developing dementia. A balanced diet is crucial for brain health and reducing the risk of cognitive decline.

How do you manage a dementia patient’s sweet cravings?

Managing sweet cravings in dementia patients involves offering healthier alternatives that satisfy the craving without compromising nutritional value. Options include fruits, smoothies, and desserts made with natural sweeteners. It’s also important to maintain a balanced diet and regular meal times to ensure overall nutritional needs are met.

Are there any benefits to allowing sweets in a dementia patient’s diet?

In moderation, sweets can provide emotional comfort and improve the quality of life for dementia patients. They can evoke positive memories and offer a sense of normalcy and pleasure. The key is to balance these treats with a nutritious diet to support overall health and well-being.

How does dementia affect a person’s eating habits and preferences?

Dementia can significantly alter a person’s eating habits and food preferences, including an increased desire for sweets. This will vary though based on the type and stage of dementia that an individual has. Changes in taste and smell, memory issues, and emotional needs can all influence dietary choices. Understanding and accommodating these changes, while ensuring a balanced diet, is essential in dementia care.

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Michelle Saari is a Registered Dietitian based in Canada. She has a Master's Degree in Human Nutritional Sciences and is a passionate advocate for spreading easy to understand, reliable, and trustworthy nutrition information. She is currently a full time online entrepreneur with two nutrition focused websites.

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