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Nutritional Drinks: Helpful or Harmful for Seniors?

By Lisa M. Davila, B.S.N., M.S.
April 3, 2023
Woman drinking nutritional drink

It can be difficult to get all the nutrients you need as you age. Your appetite might be affected by certain health conditions, medications, or changes in your sense of taste and smell. If you have physical limitations, it could be challenging to shop for groceries or prepare healthy meals.

So, grabbing a nutritional drink - also known as a meal replacement shake - may seem like a quick and easy fix. But are they a good option for everyone?

"People need to carefully consider why they want to consume these drinks," says Ronald Jeffreys, D.O., medical director at Oak Crest, an Erickson Senior Living community in Parkville, Md. "They may be a good way for some people to supplement their daily nutrition, but they could be a waste of money for someone else."

The pros

It's common to lose some weight as you age, but too much weight loss poses health concerns. Some seniors buy nutritional drinks to help them achieve the caloric intake they need to prevent dropping too many pounds.

Jeffreys says it's important to talk to your doctor before you add nutritional drinks to your daily routine, in case there is a medical issue behind your weight loss. "There could be a reason that's easily treatable," he adds.

Nutritional drinks are high in protein, which is a key nutrient for seniors, especially if they are losing pounds. Protein keeps muscles strong, helps the body repair itself, and helps the immune system function optimally.

For generally healthy seniors, nutritional drinks can come in handy if you, occasionally, don't have time to grocery shop or prepare a meal.

"It's always best to get nutrients directly from food sources. Eating well-balanced meals is the way to go," Jeffreys notes. "But, since most drinks have essential nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, it's okay for healthy seniors to consume a nutritional drink as a meal replacement every once in a while."

The cons

The biggest red flag of nutritional drinks is that they tend to be high in added sugar.

"For people who need to gain weight, high sugar content is not usually a problem," Jeffreys says. "But for other people, the added sugar is unnecessary and may contribute to existing health problems."

In addition, the vitamin and mineral compounds in nutritional drinks may negatively interact with certain medications.

"Vitamin K, which is often found in these drinks, can interfere with the therapeutic actions of anticoagulants," he says. "If someone has several nutritional drinks daily, it could potentially make their blood-thinning medication less effective."

Make sure you check the ingredients list of a nutritional drink before purchasing it, in case something doesn't agree with you or your medications.

"Most people develop a dairy intolerance as they age, and nutritional drinks often contain dairy products," Jeffreys says. "Your doctor can help you choose which drink best meets your needs."

Talk to your doctor

"Generally, I recommend nutritional drinks not as a meal replacement, but rather as an addition to well-balanced meals for people who need some extra calories and nutrition," he concludes. "Problems can arise when people start drinking them without a specific goal in mind. If you think you aren't getting proper nutrition or are experiencing unintentional weight loss, it's best to have a discussion with your doctor."

Health and well-being are at the forefront of the active and engaged lifestyle at Erickson Senior Living communities. To learn more about Erickson Senior Living, request a free brochure.