The Hidden Side Effects of Nutritional Drinks for Seniors

Nutritional protein drinks.

From meal replacement weight loss plans to protein shakes for building muscle, people of all ages frequently turn to nutritious sustenance in liquid form for a variety of reasons. After all, it’s easy to pack nutritional supplements and multivitamins into a beverage and still make it taste good. Unfortunately, some people have an over-reliance on these nutritional drinks and don’t realize how harmful they can be if used incorrectly. Nowhere is that more apparent than in care for elderly people. 

Studies of appetite decline indicate that older adults frequently experience a loss of appetite for a wide variety of reasons, from physiological changes in the digestive tract, disease, weakening of related senses like taste and smell, and psychosocial causes like depression or delirium. The medication elderly people have to take is also likely to have one or more of these changes or causes as a side effect. 

This loss of appetite can lead to conditions like weight loss, poor bone health, undernutrition, and loss of energy. Sweet nutrition drinks can be a great way to occasionally replace calories that would have been consumed in a meal, but they rarely have the same nutrients as a healthy diet would offer. 

Over-reliance on high-calorie nutritional drinks can lead to harmful health problems related to obesity like high blood pressure and kidney disease. A certain amount of weight gain is great for elderly people who have lost too much weight, but too much can cause harmful effects.

Caring for a loved one as they age is no easy task and nutritional drinks too frequently present as relief for caretakers and family members. But without the proper considerations of the effects of those drinks and the advice of a registered dietitian or a physician, elderly people could face harmful side effects. 

Why Do Elderly People Experience a Loss of Appetite?

Older adults – sometimes as young as fifty – start to experience physiological changes that can lead to a loss of appetite. Health problems can exacerbate this process, but even elderly people in otherwise good health naturally tend to become less active and thus their bodies require less energy to get through the day. Metabolism tends to slow down as a response to this. 

But if they don’t need as many calories each day, then eating less should be okay, right? Actually, simultaneously as their metabolism is slowing down, elderly people’s bodies’ ability to process nutrients and put them to use in our various bodily processes becomes less efficient. So they need less energy, but they need more nutrients. 

That’s why so many people, including some registered dietitians and nutritionists, rely on nutrient drinks for elderly people who have trouble getting enough to eat. They aren’t a good long-term strategy, but for older adults with chronic health issues and those on medications that can affect appetite a nutritional shake every now and then could help. 

Another reason elderly people might experience a loss of appetite is because of reduced mobility. That could make it hard to get to the grocery store or even to feed themselves. Studies and anecdotal evidence from registered dietitians who work with older adults indicate that many elderly people who experience loss of appetite from lost mobility or because of medical issues like memory loss, nutritional drinks are easier to drink. 

Ensure, one of the most popular nutritional drinks on the market, has 220 calories and 14 grams of sugar.

What Nutrients Do Elderly People Need Most?

As with people of all ages, older adults need a few key macronutrients like protein, healthy fat, and carbs. They don’t need nearly as many carbs, especially if they’re not able to move as well. Nutritionists have long debated and studied the effect of various nutrients on elderly people. For example, short trial studies once led professionals to believe that higher protein intake led to less protein in urine, which in turn led to increased bone loss. However, in 2000, a study found that the exact opposite is true: a higher protein intake reduces bone loss in elderly people. 

Dietary fiber is another important nutrient for older adults. It promotes heart health, intestinal health, and protects against other metabolic issues. Also important are omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in many vegetable oils like walnut, flaxseed, and hemp oil as well as animal fats from fish, chicken eggs, and squid. These acids protect against cardiovascular issues and may also guard against diabetes and cognitive decline, although its full range of benefits are still being studied.

Fiber is also important for maintaining digestive health. Micronutrients like Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, Magnesium, Vitamin B12, Folic Acid, and Vitamin D are also chronically missing or underconsumed in the diets of most elderly people. 

Unfortunately, while most nutrition drinks might have some of these nutrients on the label, they aren’t an effective source for satisfying the nutritional needs of elderly people, or anyone else for that matter. 

What is in Nutritional Drinks?

Some of these nutrition shakes and other drinks might have large amounts of vitamins on the label, but there are also frequently high amounts of sugar, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain for elderly people. As an example, one 16 oz. bottle of Ensure, one of the most popular nutritional drinks on the market, has 220 calories and 14 grams of sugar. They say that much sugar only represents 28% of the daily value, but that’s based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. Elderly people very rarely reach anywhere near that amount. 

Even for someone who does eat 2,000 calories a day, drinking almost a third of your sugar intake in a single sitting and getting only 10% of your calories from it is not a healthy balance. For elederly people who are struggling with glucose control or have blood sugar problems, this can be a huge issue. 

Furthermore, a bottle of Ensure lists 14 vitamins and 13 minerals. That single serving represents anywhere between 20 and 50% of the recommended daily value for vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin K, biotin, choline, niacin, and riboflavin, among others. It’s a similar situation with the minerals. 

That may sound nice enough, and for people who do need around 2,000 calories per day and want to make sure they get some healthy nutrients, a bottle of Ensure can be a nice supplement. But if an elderly person is drinking more than one or two bottles per day, they can get way more nutrients than they need. 

For some of these vitamins and minerals, that won’t lead to any huge issues. If they’re on medication, there can be complications from high levels of certain things that interact badly with what’s in their medicine. 

Over consuming vitamins and minerals can also cause side effects like dizziness, vomiting, and diarrhea, and might even increase the likelihood of heart disease and cancer. Vitamin deficiency is bad, but if an elderly person is already experiencing a loss of appetite and they begin to have problems with their digestive system because they overconsume nutritional drinks on a daily basis, they’re going to stay away from food even more to avoid trips to the bathroom

3 Ways to Fit Nutritional Drinks Into Elder Care Diets

Whether you’re looking after a loved one or working as an elder care professional, there are many ways to effectively use nutritional drinks like Ensure or Boost to help people who are experiencing appetite loss. However, take care to meet with a licensed dietician or a physician before settling on a diet plan to make sure you don’t cause any health issues.

1. Use Nutritional Drinks as a Snack

The nice thing about these drinks is they aren’t very good at satiating appetite. Since they don’t cause people to get that “full” feeling, they can be consumed in the afternoon or between meals. Doing so will allow the elderly person to keep doing what they should be doing, which is getting the majority of their nutrients from real, whole foods like veggies and high-quality protein from meat or dairy products. 

When you are experiencing loss of appetite, mealtime can be more like a dreaded chore than the break in the day that most of us might see it as. Filling in the gaps, or even using one of these drinks as a reward for eating a meal earlier in the day, can be a nice way to help elderly people avoid repetitive patterns that can cause depression after long periods of time. 

2. Make Your Own High-Protein Nutritional Shakes

If the appeal is the easy digestion, the smartest thing to do is make them from scratch using real, whole foods so that the elderly person is still getting the food they would get from a healthy diet of solid foods. Using egg whites, milk, or nut ingredients can help boost their protein consumption, which will be good for maintaining lean muscle mass and keeping the immune system in working order. 

You may also be able to find a protein powder that isn’t too high-calorie. Making nutrient shakes with protein ingredients is also a great way to use ingredients that are sweet enough to taste even when the sense of smell and taste are receding. Peanut butter is a great option to add to a nutrient shake. You can even add some ice cream or rich chocolate for an additional treat. 

There is some evidence that blending certain fibrous ingredients reduces their usefulness in the body. Some ingredients like bananas and flax seed blend up without destroying their nutritional content. With a little research, it’s easy and fun to find out what ingredients work best and suit the taste of the older adult best. 

3. Prevent Dehydration with Nutritional Drinks

Dehydration is a serious problem with older adults. This is doubly true if they have reduced mobility or don’t tend to work up a sweat during the day or if they have incontinence issues they feel embarrassed about. There are some homemade versions of these drinks that aren’t dairy-based but rather involve substantial amounts of water. Mix fruit or citrus together with water and it will be much more palatable. 

The nutritional benefits of drinking enough water are numerous no matter how old you are. It helps with all bodily processes and it might even help build up a little bit of an appetite, depending on the reasons for the loss of appetite in the first place. 

Drinking enough water can also help maintain the urinary system, although if there’s a background cause this may not be the case. Metabolism may get a boost when the elderly person isn’t dehydrated, plus brain function could improve and the likelihood of kidney disease will go down.

How Many Nutritional Supplement Drinks Can You Drink in a Day?

This is a critical question, even for younger adults who use drinks like Boost or Ensure as nutritional meal replacement. There’s a different answer for manufactured drinks with lots of sugar and the healthier homemade kind. 

For the drinks you can buy from companies like Nestle or Ensure, it’s really not wise to drink more than two a day. Now, the advice is split on this point. Some registered dietitians say you should only drink one of these nutritional drinks if it’s replacing a meal, while others say they should only work as a snack because they don’t actually give the same well-rounded nutritional value of a healthy diet made up of solid whole foods. 

Using these drinks for meal replacement is really only advisable if it’s temporary, irregular, or due to an emergency condition and therefore recommended by a physician or registered dietitian. The bottom line is they can create problems of their own and only real whole foods will give elderly people the nutritional balance they need to enjoy their older years. 

Ensure’s website says elderly people can have up to size of these drinks a day, but that would give them three times the amount of vitamins they need based on a 2,000 calorie diet. If someone is in a state where they’re drinking that many nutritional drinks a day, they’re creating new problems with their diet. 

Many times, organic juices are a great supplement to a healthy meal instead of other “nutritional drinks”.

Hidden Side Effects of Nutritional Drinks

The issue with many elderly care diets is that either the person themselves or the people taking care of them are still thinking about diets as if it were for a younger person. It might not be the case that low-fat options are always the best choice. In the end, if you can get them to eat any kind of solid, whole food, it will always be preferable. Bodily processes will be regulated and it can help boost the mood of the elderly person. 

The mental side effect of over-reliance on these drinks is often overlooked. But elderly people, even if they have memory loss or other cognitive issues, are frequently aware that they are living on a liquid diet. This can also lead to diarrhea, and that’s even more embarrassing. The feeling that they are no longer normal or capable is one of the worst feelings, and feeding them a steady diet of nutritional drinks might make that situation worse. 

Another side effect of nutritional drinks for seniors is that they can be habit-forming. It’s not that they’re addictive or anything that bad, but if they become the routine it can be difficult to break out of that. If the structure of the elder care is such that there isn’t someone around to cook at all times and the elderly person can’t do it themselves, then the nutritional shake will become the norm. If they contain a lot of sugar, they’ll be increasingly appealing as people build up a taste for them. Breaking out of that cycle with whole foods can be difficult. 


The bottom line is that these nutritional drinks can be a great help if they’re just used to fill in gaps a few times a week. There are plenty of ways to use smoothies and other nutritional drinks to build a healthy diet in elder care. Using them to prevent dehydration is one way. They can also be high-protein and help to keep the body working normally. 

If you are going to use nutritional drinks in elder care, the best way to do it is to use whole foods and blenderize them to make a drink that is full of nutrients and won’t oversaturate the body with a flood of vitamins and minerals. Overconsumption of vitamins and minerals can lead to diarrhea and other issues, to say nothing of consuming loads of sugar in manufactured drinks like Ensure or Boost. The homemade shakes are almost sure to be tastier than the store bought variety anyway, and it will add more variety to the diet to prevent repetition and brighten the elderly person’s mood overall. 

Nutritional drinks can interact poorly with medications. If you are trying to formulate a healthy diet for an elder care patient, check with medical professionals and registered dietitians before making significant changes. Many times, you can bring a list of current medications and work out a healthy diet with a registered dietitian so that you can be sure it’s tailored to the individual person. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *