Nutrition plays a major role in the wellbeing and physical health of aging adults. Most people don’t realize that nutritional requirements vary as a person ages. Just as toddlers have different nutritional requirements compared to teenagers, seniors also have different nutritional needs than young adults.
It is unfortunate that nutrition and senior diet doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Seniors are very prone to nutritional malnutrition, and this is because their appetite and metabolism slow down with age.
"Healthy eating for seniors not only contributes to physical health but also to the mental and memory function"
There is also less caloric intake, which essentially means less nutrient intake. The ability of your body to absorb nutrients decreases with age. You might think that decreased appetite and a slower metabolism would be healthy to some extent. Well, that might be true, but it also means that aging adults have less opportunity to absorb important nutrients.
"A healthy diet will help you to manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and dementia"
Keeping a healthy senior diet is critical for a number of reasons. This includes proper organ function (kidneys, livers, digestion, and eyes), and brain function (cognitive ability and memory). A healthy diet in seniors also means healthy bones and muscles, which prevents falls and fractures –maintaining mobility, posture, and flexibility.
Diet issues and facts to be aware of as you age
Eating and living a healthy life is important no matter how old you’re. However, as you grow older, certain nutrients become particularly important for your health. This is because your body and life undergo a number of changes including decreased life quality, nutrient deficiencies, and poor health outcomes. Below are some of the nutritional issues and facts you need to be aware of as you grow older.
In time, your metabolism slows down naturally, but the slow-down tends to be more pronounced for people living a sedentary lifestyle. When your rate of metabolism reduces, your body will burn fewer calories, meaning that you will need to eat less food to maintain a healthy weight. Consequently, the foods you eat should be nutrient-rich (1).
As you grow older, your body starts to produce less digestive fluids than you need. This makes it becomes harder for some important nutrients like vitamins B6 and B12, and folic acid to be absorbed.
Many older adults take one or more medication to address various health concerns. This often causes side effects such as stomach upset or lack of appetite. If the issue is not addressed in good time, it can lead to nutritional deficiencies and weight loss. Loss of appetite has also been linked to poor health and even a higher risk of death (2).
Other than medication, change in hormones, smell, taste, and life circumstances can also lead to appetite loss. One small study revealed that seniors tend to have increased levels of fullness hormones and lower levels of hunger hormones (3). This means they feel fuller more quickly and don’t get hungry as often.
"Change in hormones, smell, taste, and life circumstances can lead to loss of appetite"
Seniors who feel lonely or depressed tend to lose interest in food. On the flip side, emotional issues can also cause some seniors to overeat and gain unwanted weight.
As we age, our sense of taste and smell start to diminish. When seniors lose their sensitivity to salt, they tend to use more salt in their foods than before. Since seniors need less salt than their younger counterpart, excessive salt consumption can easily contribute to high blood pressure. On the other side, older adults retain their ability to appreciate sweet tastes for longer, which can easily lead to overindulging on sugary and sweet snacks.
"To avoid overeating unhealthy sugary stuff, you can introduce meals with sweet tastes such as yams and fruits"
Additionally, try to trade salt with low-sodium seasonings such as dill, curry and lemon juice for healthier options and new flavors. Also, try a number of new foods and flavors that you can find at your local grocery. And don’t overcook your meals –allow the textures and fresh flavors to shine through.
As you grow older, dehydration becomes a common issue. This is because your body develops a decreased ability to conserve water, you tend to feel less thirsty and you may also avoid drinking water due to issues with an overactive bladder. Additionally, you’re more likely to go slow on water intake during an illness and cold-weather months. Some of the most common complications that can arise from prolonged dehydration include a headache, constipation, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, low blood pressure and even loss of consciousness.
How can diet impact seniors health?
As already mentioned, nutrition has a major impact on our overall health and literary how long we live around. An unhealthy nutrition can have tremendous negative effects on older adults because their bodies don’t function as well as they did when they were younger. To better understand this, let’s take a quick look at how a healthy and unhealthy diet can affect your overall health.
Loss of Vision:
Eye diseases might worsen due to reduced intake of lutein, antioxidants, vitamins, and proteins. Eating a healthy diet will provide you with a number of benefits including antioxidants that combat free radicals, protection of cells in the retina, and repair of eye damages caused by stress or intense exposure to light. In some cases, malnutrition can actually speed up diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, and glaucoma.
"Your risk of vision loss is likely to increase if you have poor nutrition"
Poor nutrition can cause weight gain and increase your chances of becoming obese. Too much weight gain can cause your heart to pump harder and faster and put you at a risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and tragic health conditions. Eating healthy foods low in sodium, cholesterol, and fats in addition to regular exercise can help you shed excess weight and lower your risk of developing heart conditions. If a proper diet and exercise on your own don’t seem to work, you might benefit more from an overweight elder’s treatment.
The Mediterranean Diet is especially beneficial for improving heart-health. Read more about it here:
If you have a low intake of proteins, vitamins, and minerals, your body may experience the reduced production of white blood cells. As a result, your immune system might have difficulties pointing out and fighting viruses and bacteria. With severe bacterial infection, it may become even more difficult for antibiotics to treat your case.
"With a healthy nutritional plan in place, your immune system will be better placed to handle various bacterial and viral infections"
Muscles and Joints:
If you follow an unhealthy diet, you’re likely to have low consumption of proteins and calcium. This could result in weakening of your bones and later cause osteoporosis or arthritis. Generally, as we age, we tend to develop low bone density and poor bone structure. So you need to eat foods rich in calcium, protein, and fiber to develop stronger bones and muscles and increase your flexibility. This will also lower your risk of slips, falls and fractured bones.
An unhealthy nutrition may accelerate the degradation of neurons in the brain, which could cause memory and speech impairment. Eating whole greens, healthy fats, vegetables and fruits can eliminate the toxins which negatively impact the brain.
The Risk of Cancer:
Unhealthy eating habits can reduce the number of immune cells in your body. This is one of the biggest reason cancer is common in seniors under poor nutrition. Research has revealed that most seniors who’re diagnosed with cancer have nutritional gaps that need to be addressed (4). By following a healthy meal plan, you can lower your risk of developing different types of cancer.
Underweight in seniors
As you age, you may start losing weight for a number of reasons. If you’re underweight or have suddenly lost weight for no obvious reason, you might want to see your doctor and check that there’s no underlying medical cause for the weight loss.
Potential causes of unintended weight loss include (5);
• Loss of appetite
• Change on diet
• Celiac disease
• Addison’s disease
• Crohn’s disease
• Dental problems
• Changes in the sense of smell and taste
• Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
• Major depressive disorder
• Hyperthyroidism and Hypothyroidism.
• Parkinson’s disease
• Ulcerative colitis –an inflammatory bowel disease
How to “treat” unintentional weight loss:
The best overweight elders treatment plan should begin by careful diagnosis and evaluation of the possible health and social problems causing weight loss. Many doctors tend to quickly prescribe high-calorie supplements and prescription appetite stimulants when addressing underweight in elders.
Use of high-calorie supplements and prescription appetite stimulants as the first option to treat weight loss and loss of muscle mass in seniors should be avoided. Instead, you should discontinue medications that might be interfering with your eating, optimize social support, leverage a healthy diet made up appealing foods and get feeding assistance where necessary.
"Fat is a great way to provide energy, as long as you bank on the “good fat” such as olive oil, avocado, or almonds"
Extra nutritional support should include extra calories and proteins. Other foods loaded with healthy oils such as peanut butter should also be encouraged.
Research also reveals that adults who are underweight can benefit from supplemental protein (6). Numerous other studies have used whey protein or milk to “treat” patients who showed pronounced signs of muscle loss.
Overweight in seniors:
When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, things can be quite tricky in adults. There’re countless articles and publications directed towards managing weight in young adults, with very little on aging adults. The basics of managing weight may remain the same in senior, but they tend to gain weight for different reasons.
Causes of weight gain in seniors:
• Underactive thyroid
• Steroid treatment
• Stress and low mood
• Lack of exercise
• Change in diet
• Fluid retention
• Slower Metabolism
• Hormonal Changes
• Depressive Disorder
• Poor nutrition
How to “treat” unintentional weight gain in seniors:
Unlike other aging signs like greying hair and getting wrinkles, it is possible to avoid being overweight. There’re a number of things you can do to “treat” overweight and live a healthier life. One of the most obvious and commonly recommended solutions for overweight seniors is exercise. You should focus on physical activities that will help you shed some pound while preserving your bone and muscle mass. Some of the recommended physical activities include stretching exercise, aerobics and stretching.
You also need to talk to your physician about the possible effects of your prescription drugs on your weight management. Getting enough sleep can also help you lose weight.
"If you don’t get enough sleep, certain hormonal changes can make you crave for more “bad food”, but still feel less full"
While protein is great for helping you develop muscles and avoid underweight issues, certain protein sources such as meat might be harder to eat. So you should instead focus on softer sources such as eggs, peas, and spinach. For some reason, most weight loss diet recommendations are tailored for younger adults. Be sure to consult your doctor or a dietician for a proper senior diet advice and meal plan that will help you lose weight safely.
Additionally, don’t solely rely on weight loss tips you used in your younger years –a lot has changed in your body since then. If you find exercising for long hours uncomfortable, you should consider shorter workout intervals.
How about a vegetarian diet?
Averagely, vegetarians consume less salt, proteins and saturated fat, and fewer calories. These choices are generally healthier compared to alternative diets. Vegetarians typically eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, and fiber. Overall, they generally have lower incidences of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes –illnesses that often plague seniors. Below are the top three benefits that seniors who eliminate animal products and capitalize on a vegetarian diet enjoy.
"Vegetarians generally have lower incidences of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes"
- Ready-to-Eat: Most vegetarian foods are usually ready to eat or require minimal preparation compared to foods sourced from animals. Many dishes such as the veggie chili, vegan soup, and pasta foods can be prepared within minutes in bulk and frozen as individual servings.
- Increased Immunity: a diet full of animal-based food sources carries a higher risk of causing higher levels of cholesterol and chronic disease. Plant-based diets will reduce your visits to the doctor for a number of different diseases.
- Protein: Vegetarian diets make up for a great source of healthier proteins such as legumes, seeds, whole grains and nuts which will keep your tissues healthier and your body energized.
If you want to explore a more plant-based diet there are a lot of websites that write about this subject. You can also find recipes and learn to make all your favorite dishes without using meat.
Should I take supplements?
A majority of age-related illnesses, physiological body changes, and medication side effects change how older adults absorb minerals and vitamins. Additionally, most seniors don’t take enough vitamins and minerals due to poor nutrition. So seniors may lack vitamin D, calcium, potassium, vitamin B12, and fiber.
While the first best solution for addressing malnutrition is changing the diet, this can be difficult for many seniors. Living on a fixed income may make access to fresh produce too expensive. Some seniors are no longer able to cook and don’t have a dedicated diet assistant. For others, reduced appetite, slow metabolism, and ill-fitted denture may make it difficult to eat.
"Seniors should pay more attention to their intake of Vitamin D, Calcium, potassium, fiber, and vitamin B12"
Where adjusting the diet is difficult, you should consider dietary supplements as a solution. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that seniors should pay more attention to their intake of Vitamin D, Calcium, potassium, fiber and vitamin B12 (7).
It’s however, always important to try and fix your nutritional deficiencies with food before opting for supplements. For instance, fortified yogurt and milk can boost vitamin D and calcium. Fortified cereal, lean meat, and some seafood have vitamin B12, while vegetables and fruits have fiber and potassium.