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Heart Failure and Holiday Meals: Keeping Elders Safe at Home

holiday meal planning

It’s that wonderful time of year again.  Holiday parties and family gatherings and lots and lots of delicious food.  For many of us, over-indulging leaves us feeling sluggish and uncomfortable.  For elders with heart failure in our care, over eating or drinking can be dangerous.

Congestive heart failure is when the heart muscle isn’t strong enough to pump blood as it should.  If uncontrolled, fluid builds up in the feet, legs, and abdomen.  It causes fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing and other uncomfortable symptoms.   It is usually treated with medication, but nutrition plays a significant role in managing heart failure. Acute CHF events contributed to over 1,170,000 hospitalizations in 2009 and continues to increase each year.

Informed Choice:

Its vital that the elder take an active role in managing their heart failure to avoid hospitalization or other consequences, but medical experts believe that many patients don’t have a basic understanding of the disease and what can be done to improve outcomes.  Caregivers should help educate their elder clients about lifestyle and food choices that can help or hinder the elder’s well-being.  Empowering an elder to make informed choices about meals provides a sense of control and honors their wishes.

Caregivers can educate elders on food and lifestyle choices that can help improve health outcomes and reduce complications of heart failure.

Enjoy in Moderation:

Favorite foods bring back memories and provide a sense of comfort to many elders.  We want them to enjoy favorites, but some may need to be modified.  It’s important to limit high sodium foods like frozen or prepackaged meals, canned soups and broth and cured or processed meats like bacon and ham. Choosing alternative seasonings like herbs, spices, citrus and pepper will still give food great flavor without added salt. Sweets and foods high in sugar should be enjoyed in moderation, as they raise blood pressure, making CHF worse.

Beverages and fluids may also be limited for those with heart failure.  Drinking too much can make symptoms like swelling, weight gain and shortness of breath worse. Follow these tips if fluid has been restricted by a healthcare professional:

  • Serve beverages in a small glass and limit to 1 cup at meals.
  • Count high moisture foods like soups, gelatin or ice cream in the total.
  • Have the elder chew gum, suck on candy, lemon or ice if they feel thirsty.
  • Serve a low-salt diet; high sodium foods make elder’s thirstier.
  • Help keep the elder cool; getting overheated will make them thirstier.

Provide Healthful Options:

Many foods are still part of a healthy diet for those with heart failure. Nutrients like potassium, complex carbohydrates, fiber and protein are key for heart health.  Serve fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy and lean protein to help meet nutrient needs.  Following the DASH diet is an excellent way to provide balanced nutrition and has many documented health benefits.

Alcohol and Heart Failure

Drinking alcohol can be very dangerous for elders with heart failure or other types of cardiovascular disease. Alcohol can interact with medication, raise the blood pressure and triglycerides and worsen symptoms.  Beer, wine and liquor add extra calories with very little nutrition and extra fluids, which may be restricted.  The elder should consult with a healthcare provider before consuming alcohol.

Caregivers can make meals meaningful by taking time to educate their clients.  Informing elders and honoring their choices may make their holiday season a little brighter for those in our care.


Munir MB, Sharbaugh MS, Thoma FW, et al. Trends in hospitalization for congestive heart failure,
1996-2009. [Published online ahead of print November 12, 2016]. Clin Cardiol.

Written by: Chef Beth Scholer, CC, CDM, CFPP, is a food scientist, culinary instructor, author and founder of Caregivers Kitchen. She is passionate about empowering caregivers to make positive nutritional changes and mealtime meaningful for those in their care.   She can be reached at chefbeth@caregiverskitchen.net.

Kenyon Homecare Consulting:

At Kenyon Homecare Consulting, we focus on helping agencies provide high quality care to patients. Providing education and operational protocols to agencies is key to maximizing outcomes both clinically and financially. Call us today at 206-721-5091 or contact us online to see how we can help you with chronic disease education and programs.

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