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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. 

Encourage your family member with eating (including nutritional supplements)

Some patients feel too tired or too weak to feed themselves, and may need help from the nurses to eat. 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. Encouraging your family member to eat during your phonecalls, or if you're allowed to visit, can really help.If you're allowed to visit, ask the nurses if you can help your family member with eating, but you may be asked to use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, face coverings and aprons. You may not be allowed to bring in favourite foods.  

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 phone calls or "virtual" visits.

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 phone call 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.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.