Oatmeal, Caffeine and Children, Elderly Appetites

Q: Is oatmeal still a whole grain if it’s the quick-cooking type?
Q: Is caffeine safe for children?
Q: What causes some elderly people to lose their appetite?

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: Is oatmeal still a whole grain if it’s the quick-cooking type?
A: Yes. Quick-cooking oats and instant oatmeal both contain the same components (the bran, germ and endosperm) of regular “old fashioned” oats. These convenience products are simply steamed, flattened or cut in smaller pieces to cook more quickly. The fiber content listed on labels of instant oatmeal is often lower than on other varieties because a single packet usually makes a smaller serving. Although instant oatmeal retains the fiber and whole grain qualities of traditional oats, the sodium, sugar and calorie content is often substantially higher per serving. To keep the convenience, but avoid some of the excess sugar, try mixing half a packet of regular instant oatmeal with half a packet of unsweetened instant oatmeal.

Q: Is caffeine safe for children?
A: Caffeine is a stimulant. As caffeine intake increases, so does the likelihood of problems such as sleeplessness, irritability and heart palpitations – regardless of age. The effects of caffeine, however, are expressed based on the amount per pound of body weight. So equal amounts of caffeine are going to hit a 70-pound child twice as hard as a 140-pound woman. Consider this: a 12-ounce can of cola (a typical choice for many children) contains 35 to 50 milligrams of caffeine. Taking body-size into account, each can is roughly the equivalent of one to two cups of regular coffee (which have about 100 milligrams each). In small amounts, caffeine is safe, and an occasional soft drink is unlikely to harm a child. But considering the impact of caffeine on smaller bodies, and the fact that soft drinks are not providing the vitamins and minerals needed for bone development and overall health – and are providing excess calories – parents should steer their children away from unlimited use. Remember, too, that caffeine remains in the system for several hours. A caffeinated soda consumed in the late afternoon or early evening will still be affecting a child at bedtime. Moreover, when children and teens have problems with headaches or difficulty sleeping at night (with resulting daytime sleepiness), caffeinated drinks are often involved.

Q: What causes some elderly people to lose their appetite?
A: Appetite changes can be caused by a variety of factors. Some medications, for example, can cause a reduction in appetite. If this is the case, a patient’s physician may be able to adjust the type, dose or timing of medications to lessen the effect. Trouble chewing or swallowing food may also be implicated. Such problems can often be remedied, but if not, a registered dietitian can help patients plan meals and choose foods to optimize their nutrient intake. Also, medications or other age-related changes can sometimes alter the taste of foods. If so, extra amounts of herbs and seasonings may be needed to give food an appealing flavor. Sometimes it’s not a reduction in appetite at all, but rather a decrease in energy or a lack of interest in preparing food. Home-delivered meal programs can make a big difference. Dementia may also cause some people to simply forget to eat. Lastly, consider depression, a condition that frequently features a reduction in appetite. Remember, however, that as people get older – especially if they are inactive – calorie needs decrease. Just because someone eats less than he or she used to, doesn’t always mean the diet is inadequate.

Reprinted with permission from the American Institute for Cancer Research

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