Feature Archive

Eating Right With Limited Mobility

Your guide from soup to nuts -- or smoothies, as the case may be.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

With arthritis, the simplest tasks can seem Herculean -- especially when they involve preparing and eating meals. You're not alone. Opening a carton of milk, slicing a tomato, or making a sandwich can be overwhelming to the millions of people with arthritis and other diseases and conditions that affect mobility.

So how are you supposed to eat the healthy, balanced diet that your doctors insist is part of your treatment?

"Anyone with osteoarthritis or any kind of limitation that affects their ability to walk, use their hands, or their ability to stand, as well as those with decreased general endurance and weakness that's secondary to another disease, can run into trouble when it comes to preparing and eating meals," says Susan Underwood, RN, RD, manager of nutrition services for the Visiting Nurse Service-Choice of New York. (VNS-Choice), a long-term care program serving the elderly and disabled.

"Someone's ability to cook and prepare meals is compromised if they can't stand or use their hands."

But simple strategies and tasty tips can help make cooking and eating manageable and enjoyable once again.

Counting Your Calories

First things first: "If someone isn't as mobile as they used to be, their total energy decreases so their calorie needs go down. But if they are still eating the same amount as when they were more mobile, it can lead to weight gain," Underwood says.

"Over time, they will gain weight and this will exacerbate problems with mobility." That's why the first step is to talk with a registered dietitian or health care provider who can evaluate calorie needs and discuss how best to meet them, she says. The American Dietetic Association can help you find a dietitian near you.

Harnessing the Power of Protein

Getting adequate amounts of protein is crucial for the elderly and disabled, Underwood says. "As people get older and older, we become concerned about weight loss and we tend to see decreased protein intake," Underwood explains. "When you don't eat enough protein, you don't just lose fat, you lose lean body mass and muscle that your body burns off for energy, then tissue repair," Underwood explains.

So how do you make sure you meet your protein needs?

Tina Freiwald, RD, CDE, at Windber Medical Center in Windber, Penn., suggests the incredible, edible egg. "Eggs get a bad rap, but if you don't have a problem with cholesterol, they are a good source of protein, are soft, so they can chew them as well as cook them very easily," she says.

Tuna and salmon, which are also high in protein, now come in pouches, not just hard-to-open cans, she says. Imitation crabmeat and frozen shrimp are also easy to open and good sources of protein.

You can also get protein and a bonus of calcium from cottage cheese and yogurt -- both of which are easy to chew and open, she suggests. "The less mobility you have, the heavier you [can] get, so calories can still be an issue, and many of these dairy foods come in low-fat varieties, which can be helpful unless you are already not getting enough calories because you are so frail," Freiwald says.

Souping Up Your Diet

"Canned soups can be high in sodium, but dehydrated soups in a cup -- where all you have to do is add water -- are often very health-conscious," says Freiwald.

Look for the words "reduced sodium" when choosing a soup and opt for black beans, lentil, or minestrone. "They are high in fiber, so they help keep your bowels healthy and are also a good source of protein," she says.

Dawn Jackson, RD, a dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute in Chicago also suggests high-fiber, high-protein canned kidney and garbanzo beans sprinkled on a salad or low-fat refried beans on cracker or tortilla.

"These are easy to prepare, tasty, and nutritious as snacks or meals," she says.

Smoothing Out Your Diet

"Smoothies or shakes are useful if you can't chew," says Windber's Freiwald. "You can make a shake with yogurt, soy milk, and fruit so you get dairy in as well as protein and fruit." Other ways to sneak in fruit include applesauce and canned fruit. "Berries that are frozen are great because you can take them out and set them on counter or nuke them and throw them in yogurt," Freiwald says.