Good nutrition is foundational to healthy aging. The Healthy Eating Index, published by the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, reflects how closely people follow expert dietary guidelines. Scoring 61 out of 100, adults aged 60 and older do better than other age groups in making beneficial food choices. Despite this achievement, the mark points to opportunities for improvement!
Understanding the nutritional needs of older adults takes special consideration.
This is related to changes in the body such as a decrease in metabolism and muscle mass.
Fewer calories are required but protein, carbohydrates, and fats remain essential.
Getting proper nutrients including water can be challenged by diminished senses including smell, taste, and thirst.
Many resources are available to assist with healthy eating later in life.
What are the special considerations for older adult nutrition?
Older adults need the same macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fat – as younger people. However, meeting these needs can be more challenging due to changes that occur in the aging body. Healthier eating is not only possible but also a positive way forward, and awareness of these physical alterations is important.
Here are some special considerations along with helpful eating tips.
Slowing of metabolism
The speed at which your body turns food into usable energy is metabolism. Units of energy are called calories. Overall demand for fuel diminishes with age due in part to reduced activity and less muscle mass. The calories needed to depend on many factors including not only age but also body type and health status.
Tip: Ask a health provider or registered dietician to set specific caloric needs to maintain a healthy weight. Based on an individual’s medical history and lifestyle, these clinicians can also determine the formula of macronutrients that best meets one’s nutritional goals.
Loss of muscle mass and bone density
Starting around age 50, humans lose muscle mass at a rate of about one to two percent each year. Beyond this age, researchers estimate that up to 13% of 60–70-year-olds and up to 50% of those over 80 are affected.
Protein is essential for building and maintaining both muscle and bone. Yet too much can be hard on the kidneys, so high protein diets aren’t always advisable. It is worth noting, too, that the most popular protein sources – meat, cheese, and eggs – are higher in sodium or cholesterol.
Tip: Choose leaner protein such as skinless chicken, turkey, fish, or beans to lower calories. Fortified cereal and milk, including non-dairy alternatives, help meet calcium and vitamin B and D requirements. Talk to a healthcare provider before adopting a specific diet or adding any supplements.
Advancing age may mean reduced activity for several reasons. Obesity reduces mobility as well as issues like:
- Chronic pain from spine or joint problems
- Injuries from falls
- Bowel and bladder changes
- Side effects of medication
While carbohydrates are the fastest-acting fuel source, fats are the slowest to metabolize and carry the highest calorie content. Diets high in fats can add undesired weight more easily in sedentary elders. Saturated fats are mostly from animal sources and contain cholesterol, which can worsen heart disease. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats contain omega-fatty acids making them a healthier choice thanks to cardiovascular benefits.
Tip: To keep stamina up during a planned outing, carry fruit or complex carbs like whole-grain crackers and hummus. Pay attention to nutrition labels, especially serving size and fat content. Instead of butter, sausage, and whole milk, consider substituting foods lower in saturated fat and cholesterol such as vegetable oil, plant protein, and low-fat milk. Get Omega-3s from salmon, walnuts, and flax seeds.
Reduced smell and taste
The diminishing of taste and smell may be gradual. Nonetheless, when it occurs, there is a direct and negative impact on a person’s engagement with food. Older adults consume too much fat, sodium, and sugar, possibly to enhance the pleasure of eating.
Tip: To make food more pleasing to the eye, incorporate brightly colored foods – packed with natural sweetness and nutrients, such as apples, berries, carrots, and peppers as snacks or toppings. Instead of sugar and salt, use citrus, spices, or herbs to provide zest. Texture can provide variety when the flavor is lacking, so enjoy popcorn or nuts as a snack over chips.
According to The Lancet, moderate to severe visual impairment affects more than 215 million people worldwide. This number is expected to more than double by 2050 because of an aging population. Adequate nutrition and food safety are legitimate concerns for those affected.
Tip: Seek a referral to occupational therapy for coaching on food access and safety. Purchase items that are already chopped or peeled, if the prep is difficult. Loved ones or community food programs can deliver fresh or frozen meals which are a healthier option than packaged, processed ones.
Unfortunately, teeth and gums deteriorate with age and the gastrointestinal tract is less efficient. Vitamins and nutrients aren’t as well absorbed, and medications can compound the issue. Depending on other medical conditions, the energy it takes to chew and swallow food presents a barrier to meal completion. Constipation, often worsened by inadequate fluid intake, is a culprit in diminished appetite.
Tip: Get dental check-ups. Water is key to digestive health and sips of fluid taken between bites help soften food. Avoid fried foods and those with low fiber content. Items high in fiber include:
- Dark, leafy vegetables
- Beans like lentils and split peas
- Fruit like pears, apples, and avocado
- Whole-wheat pasta
- Oats and barley
Later in life, the sensitivity to thirst lessens. Recommended daily water intake is eight cups for women and 13 for men. A Public Health Nutrition article shows that adults are not meeting this target and are drinking less over time. Other compounding issues include:
- Older people limit fluid because of bladder dysfunction.
- Caffeinated, sugary, and alcoholic beverages cause diuresis or water loss through urination.
Tip: Choose a favorite cup and keep it filled with water throughout the day. Try to meet fluid requirements by dinnertime to avoid getting up at night. Unsweetened, flavored water, decaffeinated tea, and reduced-fat milk are great choices. Smoothies made with low-fat yogurt, fruit and ice can provide hydration and vitamins.
It is possible to adjust well to age-related changes by addressing shifting nutritional needs. When dietary challenges occur, help is available. Experts advise eating fewer calories, but protein and other nutrients remain vital, so every bite counts more with age. Understanding nutrition labels is key to eating smarter. Start meal planning today and take charge!