Diet and nutrition are important for healthy living, but with an overwhelming amount of information available, it can be challenging, especially for seniors whose nutritional needs change with age.
Seniors need to maintain a nutritious diet to prevent chronic diseases and improve their quality of life.
To make your healthy eating journey easier, we’ve created this senior diet and nutrition 101 guide, which provides an overview of the essential nutrients seniors need, common dietary challenges, and tips for making healthy food choices.
Whether you’re a senior yourself or a caregiver looking after a loved one, this guide will help you navigate the world of senior nutrition and make informed decisions about what to eat.
Senior Eating: The Big Challenges In Senior Nutrition
Many older people believe aging means less activity and less need for calories. They also undergo many changes that may affect their appetite and food preferences.
Apart from certain changes that come with aging, such as a lower ability to absorb nutrients or decreased sense of taste and smell, other factors can affect seniors’ diet and nutrition, leading to malnutrition or exacerbating other health issues they may have.
According to HealthinAging.org, malnutrition is prevalent among seniors aged 65. Around 10 percent of older people in their homes do not eat enough, and one-third of people over 65 eat too much.
Here’s a glimpse at some of the issues that can prevent seniors from getting all the food they need.
1. Social Factors
Individual seniors can face a lack of interest in eating due to living alone or the loss of loved ones and difficulty affording food on a fixed income.
Many seniors, even those whose income is above the poverty line, have had to cut back on food spending. According to an AARP Foundation survey of individuals aged 50 and above, many people, including those whose income was twice the federal poverty line, had to reduce their food expenses in the previous year.
These issues can lead to health problems, so it’s important to check in with seniors and ask if they’re struggling with meals due to loneliness or budget constraints. Food pantries and Meals on Wheels are available to provide companionship and food assistance.
2. Poor Appetite
Moving on to the physical barriers that can prevent seniors from maintaining good nutrition, one of the factors is the loss of appetite, partly due to the natural aging process that results in a decrease in muscle mass and, therefore, fewer required calories.
However, obtaining essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and protein becomes easier when food intake decreases. Other factors contributing to losing appetite include
- decreased production of hunger hormones,
- medication side effects,
- gastrointestinal problems,
- and physical infirmities.
3. Loss of Sense Of Smell and Taste
Another effect of aging is a gradual loss of the senses of smell and taste. Compared to younger people, older individuals may not appreciate the aromas of cooking food and may not enjoy the taste or smell of their meals as much as they used to. The decrease in the sense of smell and taste is compounded by medication side effects that can dull the sense of taste.
4. Gastrointestinal Issues
As we age, our gastrointestinal (GI) system can experience problems, including reduced nutrient absorption efficiency and slower digestion, which can cause problems like reflux, heartburn, and increased gas.
A decreased appetite also reduces our fiber intake, leading to a cycle of poor nutrition and digestive issues.
Age-related issues can also affect chewing and swallowing, making it difficult for seniors to consume and digest their food.
Dental issues can compound this problem, further interfering with the chewing process and leading to further digestive issues.
5. Mental Health and Disabilities
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that over 38% of individuals over 65 have at least one disability, which can affect seniors’ nutrition.
Physical disabilities may limit their ability to shop for and prepare meals and sometimes make it impossible for them to feed themselves.
Cognitive issues like dementia can also interfere with seniors’ meal-preparation abilities. Additionally, depression is common among seniors and can lead to a lack of appetite.
Common Nutrition-Related Issues In seniors
1. Weight Loss and Weight Gain
Weight management is a significant concern for seniors in terms of nutrition. Both weight loss and weight gain can be problematic for the elderly due to various factors.
- Weight gain: Reduced metabolism and decreased energy levels, often associated with chronic medical conditions, can contribute to obesity in the elderly. According to a March 2004 article in “Current Opinion in Gastroenterology,” obesity is on the rise among seniors.
- Weight loss: Limited food access, decreased appetite, medication side effects, and medical issues can cause weight loss in the elderly. Economic constraints, such as poverty or fixed incomes, may hinder the ability of some elderly individuals to purchase nutrient-rich foods. Even a gradual weight loss of 5 percent over three years should prompt elderly individuals to seek medical advice, as it could indicate an underlying health problem.
2. Eating Disorders
Another health issue that can affect the diet and nutrition of older people are eating disorders, which are quite common among older people than you think.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that approximately 10 million men and 20 million women in the United States will eventually experience an eating disorder.
Contrary to common belief, many older individuals are also included in these statistics. In fact, according to NEDA, 20% of women aged 70 and older are trying to alter their body size, and 13% of women over 50 have some form of eating disorder, as reported by ANAD.
These numbers show the importance of paying attention to eating disorders among seniors and improving their diet and overall health.
Some common eating disorders among the elderly are;
- Binge Eating is when an individual rapidly consumes excessive amounts of food and is strongly urged to eat more. Sometimes, seniors with this disorder may hoard or conceal food from their loved ones.
- Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by consuming large amounts of food followed by purging extremely.
- Anorexia Nervosa is a condition in which a person has a distorted body image and perceives themselves as overweight. They will engage in extreme behaviors to lose weight or prevent weight gain. This disorder may also affect older individuals.
Anorexia aging is normally caused by various issues related to aging. These can include a decrease in smell and taste, which leads to diminished food intake, hormonal issues, gastrointestinal abnormalities, and low-grade inflammation.
Dehydration is a prevalent issue among seniors and can occur for various reasons. The elderly may have reduced water conservation ability, decreased thirst sensation, or may avoid fluids due to overactive bladder issues.
Furthermore, inadequate hydration is more common in warm weather or during illness in seniors. Medications and chronic medical conditions can also increase the risk of dehydration in the elderly.
Mild to moderate complications of dehydration in seniors may include constipation, headache, dizziness, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, and loss of consciousness. Severe complications can include seizures, kidney failure, cerebral edema (swelling of the brain), heat-related injuries, and even death.
Caregivers and adult children should be aware of the signs of malnutrition, which go beyond just weight, and understand the risks associated with it.
Factors such as changes in taste, smell, and appetite, illness, difficulty chewing or swallowing, physical limitations, dementia, medications, and depression can all contribute to malnutrition in seniors.
If left untreated, malnutrition can result in poor wound healing, muscle and bone loss, infections, hospitalization, and even death. It’s important to identify and address malnutrition in seniors to prevent these adverse outcomes.
5. Sarcopenia – age related muscle loss
Sarcopenia, which refers to age-related muscle loss, is a common condition in individuals aged 50 and above. As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass and strength, and by the time someone reaches 80 years old, they may have lost up to half of their muscle mass, according to research.
- Even individuals who are physically active can experience sarcopenia, as scientists believe there are multiple factors that contribute to this condition, including:
- Reduced nerve cells responsible for sending signals from the brain to the muscles for movement
- Lower levels of certain hormones like growth hormone and testosterone
- Decline in the body’s ability to convert protein into energy
- Inadequate intake of calories or protein on a daily basis to maintain muscle mass
Over time, sarcopenia can result in increased weakness, higher risk of falls, and mobility issues. However, if detected early, sarcopenia can be managed to improve the quality of life for seniors.
Key Nutrients For Healthy Aging
Since aging poses a lot of nutritional challenges and issues that can increase the vulnerability of seniors to disease and other health issues, making sure you get proper nourishment as you age becomes more important now than ever.
Here are several key nutrients according to Forbes Health, that you or your older loved one needs to focus on:
Loss of muscle mass with age, called sarcopenia, can impact mobility and increase disease risk. Adequate protein intake from sources like lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, legumes, nuts, and seeds is crucial for maintaining muscle mass. Experts recommend 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily for seniors.
Fiber is important for gut health, metabolism, physical performance, cognitive function, and cardiovascular health. Whole-grain bread, broccoli, avocados, apples, and berries are good sources of dietary fiber. If you struggle to consume enough fiber from whole foods, consider taking a fiber supplement. Women over 51 should aim for 22 grams of fiber daily, while men of the same age should target 28 grams.
As we age, our bodies absorb less calcium, which weakens bones and can cause health issues. Dairy products, calcium-fortified cereal, sardines, and leafy vegetables are good sources of calcium. Women over 51 need 1,200 mg/day, men aged 51 to 70 need 1,000 mg/day, and those 71+ need 1,200 mg/day.
Potassium is essential for health, supporting muscle, brain, heart, and nerve function. Seniors with potassium-rich diets have better health, but as we age, decreased kidney function may affect potassium levels. Good sources of potassium include dried apricots, bananas, potatoes, and lentils.
Excessive potassium can cause muscle weakness, nausea, and irregular heart rate. Consult with a healthcare provider to determine the right amount of potassium for individual needs, especially for those with medical conditions.
Folate is crucial for nervous system function, especially as we age, reducing the risk of depression, hearing loss, and cognitive decline. Good food sources include beef liver, spinach, broccoli, avocado, and breakfast cereals. Adults aged 51+ should aim for 400 micrograms of folate daily according to dietary guidelines.
6. Vitamin D
A diet lacking in vitamin D increases the risk of health issues in aging adults. Incorporate foods like salmon, sardines, eggs, and vitamin D-fortified milks into your diet. Guidelines recommend 600 IU of vitamin D daily for adults aged 51-70, and 800 IU for those aged 71 and above.
Healthy Eating Patterns For seniors
To make sure you’re eating enough nutrients for your body, it’s important for you to develop and stick to a healthy eating pattern.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) outline four overarching guidelines that promote healthy eating habits throughout life. These guidelines emphasize the need for individuals to make adjustments to their food and beverage choices in order to achieve a balanced and nutritious eating pattern:
- Adopt a healthy eating pattern at every stage of life.
- Personalize food and beverage choices to include nutrient-dense options that align with individual preferences, cultural traditions, and budget considerations.
- Prioritize meeting food group requirements with nutrient-rich foods and beverages, while staying within recommended calorie limits.
- Limit the consumption of foods and beverages that are high in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and moderate alcohol intake.
“For seniors, a healthy eating pattern includes eating more whole foods, getting enough protein, and limiting sodium.”
According to a study from the National Institute of Health, a dietary pattern consistent with current guidelines to consume relatively high amounts of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy products may be associated with superior nutritional status, quality of life and survival in seniors.
Research suggests that healthy dietary patterns reduce the risk of major diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
So here are some of the common healthy diet patterns that you or an older loved one can follow:
1. DASH Eating Plan
The DASH Eating Plan is a heart-healthy diet based on a 2,000-calorie intake, which does not require special foods. It promotes physical activity, lowers blood pressure and LDL cholesterol through recommendations of low-sodium, low-sugar foods, and encourages consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts while limiting saturated fats.
2. Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes high intake of fruits, vegetables, bread, potatoes, and olive oil as a monounsaturated fat source for cooking. It suggests moderate consumption of fish, poultry, and wine. This diet is low in saturated fats and most of the calories come from monounsaturated fats, which do not raise cholesterol levels.
3. Plant-based Diet
The National Kidney Foundation defines a plant-based diet as primarily consisting of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, unsalted nuts, and healthy oils such as olive oil. It emphasizes avoiding processed foods, refined grains, snack foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages, while allowing for limited consumption of meat, fish, poultry, and other animal products.
Adopting a plant-based diet has numerous health benefits, including increasing levels of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in the blood, as well as reducing the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. Additionally, a plant-based diet can lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
While following a healthy diet is important for a healthy lifestyle, it is equally crucial to stock your pantry with the right items. It is possible that the foods you purchase may appear healthy initially, but may not be so in reality.
Strategies To Improve Nutrition In The Seniors
Several strategies can be employed to address the challenges in eating habits and make sure you are able to follow a healthy diet. These strategies range from addressing physical barriers to good nutrition to social and psychological factors that affect seniors’ dietary habits.
In this context, here are some effective strategies to promote healthy eating habits and better nutrition for the elderly.
1. Pack Meals and Snacks With Nutrients
To ensure that meals and snacks are packed with nutrients, it’s essential to try a hearty chicken and vegetable soup instead of plain chicken broth; opt for a hearty chicken and vegetable soup. Casseroles, stews, and roasts are other good meal ideas that are nutrient-dense.
2. Add Extra Calories Without Extra Volume
For individuals with a small appetite, there are several ways to boost nutrition without increasing the amount of food consumed. Here are some examples:
- Add extra sauces, gravies, and grated cheese to entrees and side dishes.
- Mix powdered skim milk into milk, milkshakes, and cold and hot cereals.
- Incorporate honey, molasses, or maple syrup into hot cereal.
- Sprinkle wheat germ into hot and cold cereals or add it to baked goods like bread and muffins.
3. Use Herbs and Spices When Preparing Foods
To enhance food taste for seniors with a reduced sense of taste and smell, it is recommended to use herbs and spices while preparing meals. Examples include garlic, onion powder, salt-free seasoning blends, and fresh and dried herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and cilantro.
4. Make Meals Colorful and Appealing
To make meals more appealing, try incorporating colorful and nutritious ingredients such as mashed sweet potatoes instead of regular mashed potatoes or pasta with vibrant red tomato sauce instead of plain buttered noodles.
5. Serve Several Small Meals and Snacks
For individuals with small appetites, consuming several small meals and snacks throughout the day rather than a few large meals can be less overwhelming.
6. Do Not Fill Up on Non-nutritious Items
If someone has a small appetite, avoiding consuming coffee, tea, or soft drinks is crucial instead of more nutritious foods.
Providing a diverse range of foods is recommended to encourage a better appetite. Studies indicate that seniors eat more when presented with various food choices.
Here are some ways to increase the diversity of foods at mealtime:
- Aim to incorporate foods from every food group and a range of colors.
- Host a potluck dinner and invite friends to bring dishes to share.
- Go out for a buffet-style Sunday brunch to try various foods.
7. Make Mealtime Enjoyable and Social
To make mealtime more pleasant and friendly, consider inviting friends or relatives over to share meals or attending meal sites for seniors in the community to interact socially while eating.
8. Use Nutrition Supplements When Necessary
If needed, nutrition supplements can be an alternative to a well-balanced diet. However, you must consult a doctor or dietitian to determine whether it is appropriate.
9. Take Advantage of Services Available
Various nutrition services are available for seniors in different communities, such as community dining areas, delivery of meals at home, and consultation with registered dietitians who visit homes.
Studies reveal that meal services like Meals on Wheels can enhance or sustain the nutritional condition of older individuals. It is recommended to contact the local authorities such as town or city hall, department of health, or community hospital to determine what services are offered in your location.
Beverages: The Healthy Choices for Seniors
According to Health.gov, apart from eating concerns, older people may also find it difficult to consume enough fluids to stay hydrated due to a decrease in the sensation of thirst.
Drinking water is a good option to avoid dehydration and aid digestion as it does not add any calories. Other healthy choices include unsweetened fruit juices, low-fat or fat-free milk, and fortified soy beverages, which can also provide essential nutrients. Health professionals can advise older patients to consume fluids with meals and throughout the day.
For those who consume alcohol, it’s important to limit the intake to 2 drinks or less for men and 1 drink or less for women per day. Seniors may feel the effects of alcohol more quickly, increasing the risk of falls and other accidents.
The Importance Of Healthy Eating For Seniors
Good nutrition or eating healthy is important regardless of age, but as you grow older and become golden years – eating the right way becomes far more crucial for your well-being.
Here are some benefits of maintaining a healthy diet even in your senior years to encourage you to put more effort into your meals or in helping your older loved ones prepare their own.
1. Enhances Bone and Muscle Strength
It’s common knowledge that a well-balanced and nutritious diet can assist in maintaining healthy body weight and physical well-being.
However, the advantages extend beyond that. Intake of specific foods rich in magnesium, calcium, vitamin D, and protein can enhance bone and muscle strength. Consuming these nutrients can aid seniors in improving their physical health and mobility.
2. Enhances Cognitive Abilities
Certain nutrients can improve physical strength, but some foods can enhance cognitive function. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in certain foods, have been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by strengthening cognitive abilities. Additionally, foods high in antioxidants can improve memory and increase alertness.
3. Increases Energy
Carbohydrates are often considered unhealthy and fattening, but this is inaccurate. Some foods contain complex carbohydrates that can help increase energy levels. Potassium-rich foods and foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and other nutrients can also reduce fatigue and boost energy levels. As energy levels tend to decrease with age, incorporating these nutrients into your diet is essential for maintaining good energy levels.
4. Disease Prevention
A healthy and balanced diet promotes a healthier lifestyle and reduces the risk of various diseases. By consuming adequate nutrients and vitamins, one can lower the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, dementia, heart and liver disease, and certain types of cancer.
5. Improved Organ Functioning
Apart from preventing diseases, a balanced diet can improve the functioning of your organs. By including foods rich in specific nutrients, one can enhance the functioning of their eyes, kidneys, liver, and other organs.
For instance, consuming more fiber can improve the functioning of the digestive system, and eating foods that contain high levels of magnesium can boost the immune system’s functioning.
Resources to Help seniors Eat Healthily
Access to resources is also important in improving nutrition and health among older people since many seniors need more financial capacity to afford many options.
According to USDA Food and Nutrition Service, almost one in six seniors in America, or around 8 million in total, faces the threat of hunger or malnourishment. However, they still need to be made aware that there is available help for them, and some notable programs that offer financial assistance remain underused.
According to recent estimates, nearly 14 million adults age 60 or older qualify for federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) aid but haven’t signed up.
Health professionals can access various government resources to help seniors maintain a healthy diet. These resources include programs such as
- Congregate Nutrition Services provides meals to seniors and their spouses at senior centers, schools, and churches.
- SNAP – another program that provides temporary benefits to people with limited incomes to help with food purchases.
- The Commodity Supplemental Food Program – distributes monthly packages of nutritious foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Home-Delivered Nutrition Services – provides home-delivered meals to seniors who have difficulty leaving their homes or have certain health conditions.
- Child and Adult Care Food Program – offers reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to seniors enrolled in daycare facilities.
By selecting nutritious foods and taking advantage of available nutrition resources, individuals can ensure that every bite they take benefits their health, regardless of age.
For additional information on these resources that cater to seniors, please visit the Nutrition Programs for Seniors page on Nutrition.gov.
Eating a healthy diet is important for preventing chronic diseases and promoting healthy aging; there is always time to improve. Seniors are at a higher risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and conditions related to changes in muscle and bone mass like osteoporosis. However, they can reduce some of these risks by consuming nutrient-dense foods and engaging in physical activity.
While seniors may have lower calorie needs, their nutrient requirements are similar to or even higher than those of younger adults. This can be due to decreased physical activity, changes in metabolism, or age-related loss of muscle and bone mass. Chronic health conditions, medication use, and changes in body composition also affect their nutrient needs. As a result, consuming a healthy diet and making every bite count is especially important for this population.