Elderly nutrition is a broad and important topic because older adults are especially vulnerable to malnutrition, and many of the diseases they suffer are direct results of dietary factors. The changes we experience as we age also affect our metabolism.
Certain needs diminish; for instance, our lean body mass and basal metabolic rate decline with age, so our overall energy requirement declines as well. At the same time, we start to lack specific nutrients that can keep our aging bodies healthier.
In this post, we’ll address all of these changes and explain how proper nutrition for the elderly can help you maintain a healthy weight, stay energized, and fight off most chronic conditions associated with old age.
How Does Aging Affect Elderly Nutrition?
Aging, and the changes in your life that come with age, such as retirement, can affect your nutrition and, in turn, your health in a number of ways. Some have a direct impact; others influence your nutrition indirectly. These are all the changes that can happen in our later years:
Reduced Energy Requirements
As we age, we lose our lean body mass, and our metabolism slows down. As a result, we need to consume fewer calories than we did when we were younger. Moreover, retirees and seniors with mobility issues tend to be less active, which leads to a further loss of muscle mass and an additional decline of basal metabolic needs. Nutrition for elderly people has to be adjusted according to age in order to maintain a healthy weight and prevent obesity.
Decreased Senses & Appetite
The opposite problem—malnourishment—can occur as a result of a reduced sense of smell and taste. This is also a change that happens to us when we get older. It can cause a loss of appetite because seniors tend to eat less when they can’t taste their food like they used to. Neglecting elderly nutrition needs can lead to unhealthy weight loss and frailty.
Chronic Medical Conditions
Most older adults have at least one chronic condition, and poor eating habits can be blamed for a majority of them. According to the WHO, there is a connection between dietary fat and cancer of the colon, pancreas, and prostate.
Dietary factors can also lead to high blood pressure, high blood lipids, glucose intolerance, and other contributing factors for atherosclerosis, a disease of the blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Improper nutrition in the elderly can also cause diabetes and osteoporosis, especially when we don’t meet the daily requirements of certain micronutrients.
Medication Side Effects
Since most seniors have at least one chronic condition, they sometimes also take multiple medications to treat them. Each one can have side effects, and interactions can happen between medications, not to mention the food you eat. Some of the most common side effects can include nausea, reduced appetite, and changes in food taste perception. Therefore, medications can also compromise senior nutrition.
Oral Health Issues
Another obstacle seniors are more likely to face are dental issues such as missing teeth or gum disease, which can cause difficulties with chewing, as well as mouth sores and jaw pain. Improperly fitted dentures can cause problems too.
All of these issues can interfere with your ability to eat some foods. As a result, seniors are more likely to skip meals and potentially avoid some healthy food choices that are a part of balanced nutrition for older adults.
Weakened Immune System
Like every other system in our bodies, our immune system is also affected by aging. It weakens with age, putting you at an increased risk of foodborne illnesses and food poisoning. The elderly should be particularly careful when preparing foods such as poultry and dishes containing raw eggs.
Memory Loss & Depression
Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia can cause seniors to forget whether they’ve eaten. Coupled with a reduced appetite, it’s not hard to see how memory loss can compromise nutrition in the elderly. Furthermore, as you grow older, a lot of unpleasant changes can happen, such as the death of loved ones. Depression is quite prevalent among older adults, and it can cause them to become apathetic about their health and avoid eating.
Mobility Issues & Lack of Transportation
Arthritis and various disabilities can cause seniors to have trouble moving, cooking, grocery shopping, and so on. All of this can discourage them from going shopping and cooking proper meals. As a result, some may choose unhealthy alternatives or skip meals.
Lack of Finances
Even if you are well aware of the importance of nutrition in elderly people, you may be living on a fixed income and your resources can be very limited. This can leave you with no choice but to pick cheaper ingredients, increasing your risk of developing micronutrient deficiencies.
How Can Proper Elderly Nutrition Help You Stay Healthy?
If you’ve successfully managed to remove the obstacles preventing you from getting your hands on healthy ingredients, the next step would be to know how to balance your diet. A balanced diet should contain proper proportions of macronutrients and enough micronutrients to prevent deficiencies. Here’s how to assure that.
1. Eat a Diverse Diet of Nutrient-Rich Foods
According to most senior nutrition guidelines, the easiest way to get all the necessary nutrients in your body is to have a highly diversified diet containing complex and nonrefined carbohydrates, lean proteins, low-fat dairy products, and foods low in saturated and high in unsaturated fats.
In a healthy, well-balanced diet, the majority of calories should come from vegetables and fruits, beans and lentils, whole grains, and nuts and seeds, coupled with reasonable portions of low-fat dairy and lean meats like fish and chicken.
2. Choose Healthier Snacks
Avoid processed foods as much as possible. They are usually high in salt or sugar and unhealthy food additives. Instead, choose natural products such as fruits and nuts as snacks in between meals. When you choose the right snacks, try to have them around. Snacking is good for maintaining healthy nutrition in older adults. Having five smaller meals throughout the day, instead of three heavy meals, is a proven way to speed up your metabolism.
The next smart choice for older adults is to eat plenty of fiber. It’s essential for a healthy digestive system. Apart from preventing constipation—a common problem in the elderly—fiber is also important for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. The best sources of fiber include fruits and vegetables with the skin whenever it’s possible, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, oats and oat bran, and whole grains.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The primary source of this staple of healthy eating for the elderly is fish, especially sardines, tuna, mackerel, and salmon. They’re also contained in flaxseed, soybeans, canola oil, and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent inflammation which can lead to cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease. Moreover, they can slow down macular degeneration, a condition that leads to poor vision, and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Two servings of omega-3 fatty acids a week are recommended by nutritionists.
Calcium is a mineral essential for bone health. The WHO recommends people over the age of 50 consume 1200 mg of calcium daily. This mineral is especially important for women after menopause because they are particularly prone to developing osteoporosis.
When it comes to elderly nutrition, problems can include not being able to meet the daily requirements by only getting this nutrient from food. In order to get enough calcium, you’d need to drink four cups of fortified orange juice, milk, soy, or almond milk daily. That’s why sometimes supplements may be needful.
6. Vitamin D
The second most important nutrient in preventing osteoporosis is vitamin D. Unlike most other vitamins, our body is able to produce it itself. It does this when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Also, vitamin D can be found in eggs and certain fish.
Maintaining optimal bone health is important for preventing serious complications in the elderly, especially after more serious events like suffering a fall. Furthermore, there’s evidence that Vitamin D can help protect against chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. All of this makes it one of the top nutritional concerns for elderly people.
7. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is an essential antioxidant that helps us recover after infections, repair bones, heal wounds, help with the collagen production that keeps our skin elastic, and even help prevent cancer and heart disease. Peppers and citruses are the best natural sources of this vitamin.
8. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 helps maintain nerve function, as well as the production of red blood cells and DNA. As you age, this vitamin gets increasingly difficult to absorb from food. While it can be found in dairy products, meat, and poultry, B12 in the form of a nutrition supplement for elderly patients is sometimes a necessity.
Eating foods rich in iron, such as meat, prevents the elderly from becoming anemic and feeling tired and lethargic. Iron is a vital part of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells, which carries oxygen throughout our bodies. Vegetarians and younger women are especially prone to iron deficiencies, although they are not rare in older adults.
The advantages of eating foods high in potassium—such as bananas, prunes, and potatoes—include reducing blood pressure and lowering your chances of developing kidney stones.
It also has a role in strengthening bones, so it’s one of the key elements of nutrition for the elderly. It’s important, though, to be careful not to ingest more than 4700 mg of potassium daily because too much of it is dangerous.
Magnesium has a role in over 300 physiological processes in our bodies. It helps with keeping your heart, immune system, and bones healthy. However, as you grow older, your body begins to struggle to absorb enough magnesium. This mineral is mainly found in whole grains, nuts, fresh fruit, and vegetables. Seeing that it’s also one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in elderly people, it is frequently substituted.
Last but not least, we must not forget water, one of the six essential nutrients. Neglecting hydration can have serious consequences on senior health. You can read all about preventing dehydration in our article dedicated to that topic.
Why do nutritional needs change as we age?
Senior nutrition has to be adjusted in accordance with the natural changes in our bodies that happen as a result of aging. Most importantly, as your metabolism slows down, you need to consume fewer calories to maintain a healthy weight. At the same time, the need for certain micronutrients increases. For instance, you’ll need to consume more Calcium and vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis.
What factors can affect the nutritional status of the older person?
Many factors can influence the nutritional status of a senior and most of them can lead to undesired weight loss. These risk factors include decreased senses and appetite, chronic medical conditions, medications, dental problems, weakened immune system, dementia and depression, mobility issues, and lack of transportation and finances.
What are the nutritional requirements of the elderly?
The elderly need fewer calories overall, but the calories they consume need to come from nutrient-rich foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins D, C, and B12. There’s a recommended daily requirement for the elderly for each of these nutrients.
What are the six essential nutrients?
The six essential nutrients, necessary for the proper functioning of our bodies, remain the same from infancy to old age. But the daily requirements of some of them do change as we age. The six essential nutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water.
Why protein is important for the elderly?
Proteins, coupled with regular physical exercise, are the most important nutrient for maintaining muscle mass and strength. Without them, it would be hard for seniors to stay strong and avoid frailty, which would put them at risk from suffering falls. Falls in the elderly are a very serious issue, and we’ve dedicated a full article on them at MedAlertHelp.
Why do old people need carbohydrates?
Though often vilified and excluded from almost every weight loss diet, carbs are our main source of energy, and they should account for more than 50% of all caloric intake. However, they should not come from simple sugars but foods such as sweet potatoes and whole grains.
What is a healthy diet for older people?
A well-balanced diet, consisting predominantly of vegetables and fruits, beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and small portions of low-fat dairy, eggs, and lean meats such as fish and chicken, is the key to staying healthy through proper elderly nutrition.