Ms Leith is due to deliver a lecture on food and ageing tonight at the annual meeting of the charity Counsel and Care, in which she will say that too many residents of hospitals and old people's homes are being forced to eat a "healthy" diet. This can leave them miserable, depressed and with a reduced chance of recovery.
The emphasis, she says, should be switched to the pleasure of eating, and old people should be encouraged to eat what they like, not what they should.
Ms Leith, 59, said: "I don't like bullying about food. I want older people not to be told they have to eat to stay healthy, I want those who care for them to make eating a pleasure." She said her own mother, who had Alzheimer's disease, was eating too often and putting on weight because she could not remember when she last ate. She enjoyed eating when she felt like it rather than by the clock. "I am not going to make her life a misery by telling her she mustn't," she said.
The cookery writer said eating was one of the last pleasures left to old people and every effort should be made to preserve and enhance it. Referring to her friend, the late actress Dame Edith Evans, she said: "I believe Edith had it absolutely right. She said that as she got older she wasn't offered acting roles because she couldn't remember the lines.
"She couldn't go to concerts because she didn't hear very well. She couldn't read because her eyesight was limited. As for sex ... but food just got better and better."
Ms Leith, who has visited hospitals and homes to check their food, said she had met a woman of 90 in a big London hospital who was being bullied into changing the diet that had served her well through nine decades.
"This lady had survived to that grand old age despite loving a diet of white bread, fried eggs and other foods considered to be unhealthy by some people. Yet here they were trying to make her switch to a so-called healthier diet and she was finding this somewhat distressing. She just didn't like wholemeal bread and that sort of thing. Why bother as long as she enjoys her food? There are few compensations for being old and if being allowed to eat the wrong things is one of those rare compensations, that's all right."
She said she had found good and bad food practices in the homes. The good ones provided varied menus, varied meal times and served food that older people wanted to eat rather than what their carers thought they should eat.
"But there are still too many homes and hospitals with a take it or leave it attitude to food. Three heavy meals a day, no choice, at regular times set in stone, often the last meal at six o'clock in the evening. I believe that the rule should be little and often rather than large meals at set times."Reuse content