As we age, our nutritional needs change, and it becomes increasingly important to nourish our bodies with the right foods to maintain optimal health and well-being.
Unfortunately, many older adults struggle to meet their nutritional needs. That’s why seniors and their caregivers need to understand the basics of senior nutrition and make informed choices about their diets.
In this guide, we’ll cover the essentials of senior nutrition, including the nutrients older adults need and much more. Whether you’re a senior looking to improve your diet, a caregiver helping an older loved one, or a healthcare professional working with older adults, this guide will provide the information and tools you need to nourish your golden years and live life to the fullest.
The Six Basic Nutrients
Before we move on to the essentials of senior nutrition, let’s refresh your memory of the basic nutrients that make up the foods we eat and what they do to our bodies.
Understanding the basics of nutrition will help you get a solid foundation of the primary things you’ll need to focus on when planning a healthy diet for yourself or your older loved ones. So here are the six basic nutrients from the Virginia Family Nutrition Program’s Eat Smart, Move More.
Carbs, short for carbohydrates, are the primary energy sources for our bodies. The fuel that powers cells in our body is blood sugar, which is generated from carbs. Carbs can be categorized as simple, consisting of sugar that’s easy to digest, or complex, made up of starch or fiber that’s more challenging to digest.
Although fiber can’t be digested, it plays a vital role in maintaining gut health and managing cholesterol levels. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that 45-65% of calories should come from carbs.
Carbs can be found in various foods, including.
- and dairy products.
Amino acids, the basic components of our tissues, combine to form protein. The protein we consume is crucial in repairing, maintaining, and growing our body tissues.
When carbohydrates or fat don’t provide sufficient energy, protein can also be converted into blood glucose.
Protein can be found in varying quantities in many different foods, including
- and dairy products (considered the most reliable protein sources).
Fat is a highly concentrated energy source, containing twice as many calories per gram as other nutrients. Its main function is to store excess calories in our body for later use, but it also plays a crucial role in various metabolic processes such as hormone production, insulation of body tissues, and protection of internal organs and body parts such as the palms and soles of our feet.
Our cell membranes are composed of fat, and approximately 60% of our brain is made up of fat. Some fats like Omega-3s are essential for our health and can only be obtained through our diets.
We can find fats in
- animal products,
- dairy foods,
- and oils from plants (olives, avocados, canola seeds, and coconuts).
Vitamins, although required in smaller quantities compared to other nutrients, play a crucial role in the proper functioning of the body. Each vitamin involves various bodily processes such as metabolism, growth, development, and immune system function.
The two categories of vitamins are water-soluble (vitamin C and B complex) and fat-soluble (vitamin A, D, E, and K). Almost every food contains some vitamin; in upcoming posts, we’ll delve into more specific details about each vitamin.
Essential minerals, which can be likened to elements on the periodic table, play a crucial role in our bodily functions. These minerals are involved in metabolic processes and form part of body structures, such as calcium in bones and teeth.
Our bodies consist of 45-75% water, which is essential for maintaining good health. Water is vital in various bodily functions and regulates our body temperature.
It constitutes a major portion of our blood and other fluids, enabling the transportation of nutrients to and from our cells.
While the amount of water we require daily varies based on age and activity level, a general guideline is consuming 8-10 cups daily.
The Nutrient Needs Of Older Adults
Now that your knowledge of the basic nutrients has been refreshed, it’s time to move on to how much of these nutrients an older adult needs.
Older adults may require fewer calories but need more protein, vitamins, and minerals than younger adults. To learn more, here are some of the special nutrient considerations for older adults.
Energy And Macronutrients
As people age, they tend to have less lean body mass and a slower metabolic rate which results in the following energy requirement for individuals aged 51 and above:
- For women, the calorie requirement is between 1,600 and 2,200 calories per day.
- For men, the calorie requirement is between 2,000 and 2,800 calories, depending on their level of physical activity.
Reduced physical activity among older adults also affects their nutritional needs.
The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDRs) for carbohydrates, protein, and fat remain constant from middle to old age.
However, older individuals should replace refined carbohydrates with more unrefined ones like brown rice and whole grains. It is essential to include fiber in the diet to prevent constipation and diverticulitis, and it may also lower the risk of colon cancer.
Regarding protein, it’s advisable to choose lean options, while healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, should also be included in a well-balanced diet.
During this stage of life, increasing the intake of certain micronutrients is recommended to maintain good health.
To slow down bone loss, men and women should consume 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day, and to protect bones, men, and women should consume 10-15 micrograms of vitamin D daily.
To reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and lower homocysteine levels, older men should consume 1.7 milligrams of vitamin B6 per day, and older women should consume 1.5 milligrams.
As individuals age, their stomach acid production may decrease, leading to the overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, affecting vitamin B12 absorption.
Therefore, older adults must consume 2.4 micrograms of B12 daily to promote healthy brain function. Postmenopausal women no longer require high iron levels; their recommended intake decreases to 8 milligrams daily. People over fifty should consume foods that are rich in all of these micronutrients.
What’s A Healthy Weight For Older Adults?
BMI, which stands for body mass index, is an important indicator of general health. The recommended BMI range for all adults is between 18 and 24.9. If your BMI is 25 or higher, you are considered overweight; if it’s over 30, you’re classified as obese.
However, elderly individuals may not be as affected by a few extra pounds as younger people, and being underweight is something older individuals should avoid.
According to Medline Plus, it is often better for older adults to have a BMI of 25 to 27 rather than under 25. For individuals older than 65,a slightly higher BMI may help protect you from thinning of the bones (osteoporosis).
You may calculate your BMI by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared and use the chart to see what category your BMI falls into.
|18.5 to 24.9
|25.0 to 29.9
|30.0 to 39.9
|Extreme or high risk obesity
There are also plenty of online calculators and charts that can help you determine your BMI based on your inches and pounds, such as the one from the Verywellhealth website.
Meals for Older Adults: What’s On The Plate?
After knowing the nutritional requirements for seniors, you may be thinking about what you should eat then or what you should serve your older loved ones on their next meal.
To give you an idea of what you should eat to meet your nutrient requirement as an older adult or help plan meals for an older loved one, here are the recommendations from the Health Hub’s Health Promotion Board,
- Have protein-rich foods in every meal to help maintain physical function and reduce muscle loss.
- Protein-rich foods include:
- Meat, Fish, Tofu, Eggs, Poultry, and Milk
- Make sure to have calcium-rich foods in your daily meals for stronger bones.
- Calcium-rich foods include
- Milk, Ikan Bilis, Sardines, and Cheese
- Fill up on whole grains, fruit, and vegetables.
- Include at least one wholegrain staple food like wholemeal bread, brown rice, or oats daily.
- Be sure to have 2 servings of fruit and 2 servings of vegetables daily.
- Lessen your salt intake.
- Season your food naturally with fresh foods, herbs, and spices.
- Opt for low-salt options when eating out or shopping.
Health hub also recommends older adults include the right amount of food from the different food groups in their daily meals:
- Aim to fill fifty percent of your plate with fruits and vegetables to ensure a healthy diet.
- Then, allocate a quarter of your plate to whole grains and another quarter to meats and other protein sources.
USDA Food Patterns
For further information, you may also check out the Food Patterns developed by the USDA, including;
- Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern: This is based on the typical American diet and includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, seafood, poultry, meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, and soy products. Check out this sample menu to get started.
- Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern: This features more fruits, seafood, and less dairy than the U.S.-style pattern.
- Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern: This pattern contains no meat, poultry, or seafood but does include fat-free or low-fat dairy, along with more soy products, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and whole grains than the U.S.-style pattern.
To learn more about each eating pattern and the recommended daily intake amounts for each food group, visit the USDA Food Patterns webpage.
As we age, we face natural obstacles to getting enough food, and society’s negative attitude towards overeating can cause us to overlook the potential problems of undereating. These problems include a lack of energy, emotional and cognitive issues, and severe complications such as organ failure and malnutrition-related diseases.
Regardless of age, our bodies require fuel to function properly, not just for physical health but also to maintain our zest for life, spend quality time with loved ones, and preserve overall well-being.
Therefore, seniors must prioritize a healthy and sufficient diet as a key independent living component. Just like breakfast is considered the most important meal of the day, a nutritious and plentiful diet is fundamental to ensure a joyful later life.
To start yours or your older loved ones journey to a healthier diet you may also check out our Senior Diet and Nutrition 101: A Senior’s Guide To Nutritious Life.