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Dietary Basics for Dysphagia Patients

A speech-language pathologist sits at a desk with an elderly couple as the woman examines a container of Thick-It® Original Food & Beverage Thickener

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is a disorder that may be caused by stroke, neurological disease, dementia, or other health conditions.[i] Some patients with dysphagia have problems swallowing certain foods or liquids, while others cannot swallow at all.

Although a dysphagia diagnosis can be intimidating, taking steps to maintain proper nutrition and hydration can help minimize some of its complications, which could include malnutrition, dehydration, and aspiration of food or liquid into the lungs.[ii] To establish a balanced diet for those with dysphagia, consider the following.

What are some common symptoms of dysphagia?

Signs and symptoms of a swallowing disorder may include:

  • Choking when eating.
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing.
  • Drooling.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Sensation of food getting stuck in the throat or chest, or behind the breastbone.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Bringing food back up (regurgitation).
  • Inability to control saliva in the mouth.
  • Difficulty controlling food in the mouth.

What are some of the features of a dysphagia diet?

Many patients with dysphagia must adopt a modified diet consisting of thickened foods and liquids that are safer and easier to swallow.[iii] The goal of a modified diet is to provide a safe, nutrient-rich mealtime experience for patients using foods and drinks that are easy to swallow, look appealing, and taste good. Because every dysphagia patient is different, modified diets should be designed on a case-by-case basis by a speech-language pathologist or healthcare professional trained in treating swallowing disorders.

How are foods and liquids categorized for people with dysphagia?

The International Dysphagia Diet Standardisation Initiative (IDDSI), of which the Thick-It® brand is a gold sponsor, developed an evidence-based framework that helps standardize common language terminology and definitions to describe texture modified foods and thickened liquids.[iv]

The IDDSI framework, which is endorsed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in the U.S., consists of eight levels (0-7), where drinks are measured from Levels 0-4 (thin to extremely thick) and foods are measured from Levels 3-7 (liquidized to regular).

The framework is designed to be person-focused and easily understood, so each standardized level is objective, measurable, predictable, and has a corresponding number, descriptor, and color associated with it to reduce the patient’s risk of misuse. Patients should consult with a healthcare professional to determine the IDDSI level that is most appropriate and safe for them.

How can dysphagia patients ensure they are maintaining proper nutrition and hydration?

When following a dysphagia diet, it is important to:

  • Serve meals that have a balance of items from different food groups to ensure that the patient’s nutritional needs are being met.[v]
  • Providing patients with meals that look and taste natural can increase consumption and prevent malnutrition.[vi] Download our Variety Comes to the Table recipe book for 11 flavorful and nutritious IDDSI-compliant recipes created by the Thick-It® brand and a team of registered dietitians.
  • Establishing safe oral feeding practices is also key to ensuring patients are well-fed and hydrated. Download the free Thick-It® Brand Guide to Safer Swallowing for tips for before, during, and after meals.
  • Offer meals when patients are most alert and attentive. Some might eat better if they are given smaller dishes throughout the day, which can be less daunting than three large meals.
  • Obtain an adequate amount of fluids from a combination of water, other beverages, and food to prevent dehydration.[vii] Download our free infographic for more on the symptoms and consequences of dehydration as well as prevention tips.

Where can you turn for expert medical and nutritional advice?

While the treatment of a swallowing disorder depends on its cause and symptoms, all patients should consult with a speech-language pathologist, dietitian, or healthcare professional. For a list of additional organizations offering information, tools, and support for those with dysphagia as well as their caregivers, visit our Resources page.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have about the use of Thick-It® products. The information contained herein is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment in any manner.

[i] “Dysphagia (swallowing problems).” NHS Inform, February 14, 2020.
[ii] “What causes difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)?” Medical News Today, December 21, 2017.
[iii] Charoenchaitrakool, Devahastin, Niamnuy, Sungsinchai, Wattanapan, “Texture Modification Technologies and Their Opportunities for the Production of Dysphagia Foods: A Review.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, September 6, 2019.
[iv] “What is the IDDSI Framework?” IDDSI.
[v] “Know Your Food Groups.” National Institute on Aging, April 29, 2019.
[vi] Varindani Desai, Rinki, “Caregiver’s Guide to Dysphagia in Dementia.” National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders, July 2, 2017.
[vii] Leeflang, Jennifer, “Hydration Tips for Seniors.” AgingCare.

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