Changes in eating habits and food preference

People with dementia can experience changes in how much food they eat and when and what food they prefer.

A person with dementia may begin to develop changes in how they experience flavour. They may start to enjoy flavours they never liked before, or dislike foods they always liked.

Sometimes people with dementia make food choices that don’t match their usual beliefs or preferences. For example, a person who has been a lifelong vegetarian may want to eat meat for reasons including:

  • their preference has changed
  • they remember that they used to eat meat (before they became vegetarian)
  • they have forgotten they don’t eat meat
  • they see you or someone else eating meat and want the same, without knowing what it is.

For similar reasons, people who have other beliefs may start to want something different that they previously wouldn’t have eaten. For example, a person who does not eat pork for religious reasons may start to want pork. It can be difficult to know what to do in these situations.

Coping with changing eating habits

  • If a person has a preference for sweet foods, fruit or naturally sweet vegetables may be a healthier option if the person isn’t losing weight. Adding small amounts of honey or sugar to savoury food can also help.
  • Use herbs and spices, sauces and chutneys to enhance flavours.
  • Add small amounts of syrup, jam or honey to puddings to increase sweetness.
  • Be led by the person on what they’d like to eat, even if the food combinations seem unusual.
  • Be led by the person on when they prefer to eat. Some people like a light lunch and larger evening meal and others prefer a main meal in the middle of the day. This may be different to when they’ve previously wanted to eat.
  • Try food the person has never eaten before but remember the person’s personal preferences and practices. Their beliefs should be respected despite changes in eating habits.
  • Try to use what you know about the person and, if they’re showing a different preference, consider what might be the reason for this.
  • Also be aware of any impact on the person’s digestion. For example, if the person has always been vegetarian but asks for meat, offer meat substitutes instead. These may be easier for them to digest.
  • Always try to do what’s in the person’s best interests, even if this is different to the best interests of those around them.
  • The charity Vegetarian for Life campaigns for the respect and protection of people’s vegetarianism and veganism in care homes (see Other resources). 
  • As dementia progresses, a person may put things that aren’t food into their mouth, such as napkins or soap. There could be a number of reasons for this. For example, the person may no longer recognise the item or what it’s for, or they may be hungry and mistake the item for food.

It can be helpful to:

  • ensure everyone involved in the person’s care is aware of this behaviour
  • where possible, remove non-food items which could be mistaken for food, and lock away any harmful substances like cleaning products
  • be vigilant and remove small items that may be easily placed in the mouth
  • ensure food is available and easily accessible throughout the day
  • during mealtimes, remove all non-food items from the dinner table, such as napkins and flowers 
  • season meals in the kitchen, so that the salt and pepper shakers and spice containers are not on the table.