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Resource type: Article

Eating: what can I do to help?

Common problems with eating after Intensive Care

Patients often lose weight during their time in Intensive Care. Patients who spend a long time in Intensive Care can lose a lot of weight, sometimes up to 20% of their weight from when they were first admitted. 

There are a number of problems with eating which are common after Intensive Care. They include things like poor appetite, food not tasting quite as it should (with either a metallic or salty taste), feeling full quickly and feeling too tired or weak to eat.Patients who spent longer on the ventilator (or breathing machine) might have temporary problems with swallowing.

Others may need to be fed through a tube which goes through the nose and into the stomach (a nasogastric tube) or directly into the bloodstream (Total Parenteral Nutrition or TPN).This can mean that your family member may not be able to eat and drink normally just yet. 

Help your family member with feeding

Some patients feel too tired or too weak to feed themselves.From what others have told us, the nurses can sometimes be too busy to help patients to eat their meals.Ask the nurses if it would be possible for you to come in at hospital mealtimes to feed your family member.While your family member may feel embarrassed about needing this kind of help, it is important to remember that taking in enough of the right kind of food is an important part of the recovery process.You should also ask the nurses if you can write down what he/she has eaten on their food chart.This will help the staff to get a better idea of what your he/she has been able to eat.

Encourage your family member with any nutritional supplements

Some of the weight that patients lose in Intensive Care is muscle.If your family member has been seen by the ward Dietitian,she/he might have recommended supplements (usually high calorie or high protein drinks). Other patients have told us that they feel reluctant to ask busy nursing staff to bring them to them, that they don't like the taste, or that they struggle to take them on top of trying to eat normally.It is important to remember,however,that taking in enough calories and protein (as the building block for weight and muscle gain) is an important part of the recovery process.

You can help by asking your family member to remind the nurses to bring their supplements, asking the nurses yourself,asking if another flavour is available to try or perhaps encouraging or helping your family member to take one of their supplements during each of your visits.Ask the nurses if you can write how much of the supplement your family member has been able to drink on their food chart, as this will give the staff a better idea of what he/she has taken in.

Bring favourite food into the ward

Other patients have told us that they find it helpful for family members to bring in some of their favourite food from outside.Different hospitals have different rules about what they can allow you to bring in,so ask the nursing staff before you do so.

Favourite food might include home cooked or take away food, which you may or may not be allowed to reheat on the ward.Some food can be kept hot for a limited time using flasks, which you can leave on your family member's hospital locker.You may be allowed to keep chilled food (such as sandwiches or yoghurts) in the ward fridge and others (such as fruit,cake or dry snacks) can be kept on your family member's locker. 

Take your family member to the hospital canteen

Other patients have told us that they struggle with hospital food, or that they struggle to eat at hospital times as they are so different from their normal routine.If your family member is well enough to spend a little time off the ward, it might help to take them to the hospital canteen.It might also help to take them at times which are closer to their normal meal times.Ask the ward staff if this is possible.You may need to ask them to arrange for a wheelchair to be made available to you,as patients often tire surprisingly quickly. 

Other patients have told us that they enjoyed having a better choice of food, that going to the canteen was an enjoyable change of scenery from the ward,that it lifted their mood and provided for quality family time.Remember to ask if you can write what your family member has been able to eat or drink on their food chart, as this will give the staff a better idea of what he or she has been able to take in.

Ask to speak with the ward Dietitian

If you're concerned about your family member's weight loss and eating, ask the nurses to arrange a meeting with the ward dietitian.She or he will be able to give advice on how to make sure that your family member takes in enough calories and protein during their time in hospital and after they get home.

Lastly, be patient

We may all recognise the importance of eating in recovery after Intensive Care, but it can sometimes take a while for patients to regain the weight they have lost.Despite all your encouragement, they may still find it difficult to eat.Try not to take it to heart if you find yourself going to a lot of effort (by preparing and bringing in special meals, for example), but that your family member seems not to enjoy or appreciate it.Other patients have told us that not being able to eat can sometimes become a bone of contention within the family. Others feel guilty and upset that their families have gone to a lot of trouble to encourage them to eat, but that they just haven't been able to oblige.