As you age, your body has different metabolic needs. Metabolism is the process of your body converting food into usable energy. This includes changes to your muscle cells, which burn more fuel at rest than your fat cells. The metabolic process slows with age in part because of the loss of muscle mass. For example, the size of the quadriceps or thigh muscles shrinks by up to 40% between ages 20 and 80.
Metabolism slows later in life, increasing the risk of weight gain.
Obesity is prevalent among older adults and associated with significant health problems.
Learning what types of foods to limit can help achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Saturated fats, refined sugars, and processed foods are at the top of the list of products to avoid.
Declining physical activity also contributes to lowered metabolic rates in older adults. When muscle bulk and movement decline, fewer daily calories are required overall.
Maintaining a healthy weight is a balancing act. If the energy consumed exceeds the energy spent – the body stores the excess as fat. Though not covered in this article, exercise is as important to this equation as your diet.
“Overweight and obesity are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a health risk” as stated by the World Health Organization.
Statistically, 38% of men and 40% of women over the age of 60 are obese.
Obesity is associated with the following conditions:
|Abnormal uterine bleeding||Breast, colon, and endometrial cancers|
|Coronary heart disease||Dementia|
|High cholesterol||High blood pressure|
|Type 2 diabetes||Urinary stress incontinence|
Meet the macronutrients
Carbohydrates carry the least number of calories per gram of food.
Simple carbs – Refined sugars that are easily broken down and provide quick fuel.
Complex carbs – Compound sugars called starches that take longer to digest. Healthier versions are unaltered and contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Protein offers more calories per gram than carbs, providing greater satiety. Protein is the building block of vital tissues of the body including muscle and bone.
Fats have the most calories per gram of all the macronutrients. Fat is the major storage form of energy in the body.
Saturated fats – Found in animal products and tropical oils, are high-calorie and contain unhealthy cholesterol which can complicate medical problems in older adults.
Unsaturated fats – Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats offer cardiovascular benefits and are preferable.
Knowing the macronutrients is power! Each has inherent benefits, but when over or under-consumed, imbalances can occur. This problem is often due to misinformation. Individual nutrient allowances should be discussed with a health professional.
Food quality: seek whole foods
Higher quality food holds greater nutritional value per bite. This concept is particularly important for older adults who have a decreased calorie allotment. Better quality food might mean it’s higher in protein and fiber, lower in fat, or richer in vitamins. The opposite is true for lower-quality products.
Processed foods are altered to last longer and are typically high in salt. The added fat, preservatives, and sodium can exacerbate a host of medical conditions in older adults such as high blood pressure, leg swelling, and dehydration.
Dietician Fred Stichel coaches adults about nutrition at Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) in North Carolina. He promotes the importance of reviewing patterns of eating more so than teaching the selection of specific foods.
Stichel instructs patients to focus on eating whole foods rather than processed ones. “If you eat anything that is a single ingredient food, you are getting a balance of nutrients and energy from that food that occurs naturally. This contrasts with processed foods where energy is added artificially, contributing unwanted additives and calories,” he said.
Food products to avoid
The components of food are readily available on nutritional labels. A health professional or grocery store nutritionist can assist you with what to look for on the labels.
It is important to consult a healthcare provider or registered dietician before modifying any meal plan. That said, the following products should not be cooked with or consumed regularly by older adults with weight concerns.
- Fried foods including snacks like potato chips
- Butter, lard, palm, or coconut oils
- Beef, lamb, pork, or poultry with skin
- Cream including ice cream
- Frozen dinners
- Canned foods
- Packaged and spreadable meats
Refined carbohydrates (“added sugars”)
- Soda and juices
- Breakfast cereals
- Packaged snacks
- Desserts and sweets: Pies, cookies, cakes, pastries, and candy
Older adults face declining caloric needs and an increased risk of weight gain. Broadening your knowledge about the quality of food is a powerful way to meet the challenge of an aging metabolism. Identifying what foods to limit or avoid – saturated fats, processed food, and refined carbs – improves the benefits of the products consumed. Consulting an expert such as a registered dietician is recommended to optimize nutrition when considering any weight loss plan.