Millions of seniors suffer from malnutrition, a state of unbalanced nutrition, which can create multiple health problems. In this post, we explore ways to achieve balanced senior nutrition.
In the United States, there are approximately 3.7 million older adults who are malnourished. Although malnutrition can occur because of undernutrition or overnutrition, most seniors experience it because of undernutrition, a physical state where the body isn’t getting the right amount or mix of nutrients because of an inadequate or improper diet.
Why Is Senior Nutrition So Important?
There are six categories of nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water.
A balanced intake of these nutrients is essential to healthy living because nutrients literally sustain life. They help us regulate body functions, such as sweating, temperature, metabolism, blood pressure, and thyroid function. They help us build and maintain tissues, organs, bones, and teeth. And they provide us with the energy we need.
When we don’t get enough nutrients, we become malnourished. This can lead to health problems, such as:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Muscle weakness or loss of strength
- Poor memory
- A weak immune system, which increases the risk for infection, poor wound healing, and muscle weakness (which can contribute to senior fall risks)
While it’s important for all of us to avoid malnourishment, it can be especially important for older adults who are ill or have been diagnosed with a chronic disease or dementia.
Roadblocks to Achieving Proper Senior Nutrition
As we age, our dietary needs change. In general, seniors consume less calories than before, but need more nutrients than before. For example, older adults need more protein, calcium, vitamin D, and B12 than adults under age 60.
Unfortunately, this need for more nutrients often comes at a time when health issues create their own set of problems, or when lack of money or a decrease in social activities become an issue in getting the right nutrition.
For example, sometimes depression, a chronic illness, a lack of motivation, or a lack of desire to cook for one affects appetite in a negative way. Sometimes taste buds change or certain medications make eating less enjoyable. It may become difficult to afford groceries on a fixed income. Physical disabilities or dementia may make it difficult to shop for groceries or prepare meals alone. Even issues like dental problems can get in the way of consuming a good mix of nutrients because certain foods end up excluded from a diet.
Doctors, nutritionists, pharmacists, care coordinators, family members, professional caregivers, and charitable and community resources, such as Meals on Wheels, may be able to help remove some of these roadblocks. And strategies to reverse loss of appetite, increase enjoyment of food, or adopt new eating habits can do wonders. But at the very least, seniors need to make sure the meals they do eat are packed with as many nutrients as possible.
How Many Calories Do I Need?
So, what amount of calories should you be shooting for? You can visit ChooseMyPlate.gov for general guidelines and ask your doctor for advice based on your particular health.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in general, women age 51 or older need 1,600 calories per day if they lead a sedentary lifestyle (non-active), 1,800 calories per day if they are moderately active, and 2,000 to 2,200 if they are active. Men age 51 or older need 2,000 calories per day if they are sedentary, 2,200 to 2,400 if they are moderately active, and 2,400 to 2,800 if they are active.
The more active you are, the more you’ll need to increase the calories you consume to compensate for the calories you burn during exercise.
A Balanced Diet for Better Senior Nutrition
Create a well-balanced diet with foods like lean meats, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Here are some tips to help you consume more nutrient-rich foods:
- Start with the refrigerator. Good nutrition starts with what’s behind that door! Keep your refrigerator stocked with healthy, easy to prepare foods. Aim to include fruits and vegetables of every color of the rainbow as part of your diet.
- Enjoy your food. Identify foods that are good for you, but that also taste good to you. It won’t help to have food around you have no desire to eat.
- Ask your doctor for advice. Learn more about improving your food choices to stay adequately nourished. You can also connect with a registered dietitian nutritionist for extra help.
- Add more folic acid to your diet. Folic acid is found in foods like spinach, asparagus, and lentils.
- Increase your intake of vitamin B12. Look for this nutrient in fortified cereal, lean meat like turkey, some fish and seafood, and eggs. Ask your doctor if you need a vitamin B12 supplement.
- Take your C. Add vitamin C to your diet through foods like oranges, broccoli, and potatoes.
- Power your body with protein. Choose lean proteins like eggs, chicken, fish, lean meats, nuts, and beans.
- Watch your calcium and vitamin D levels. At a time when good bone health becomes even more important, your doctor may recommend an increase in your intake of calcium and vitamin D. Calcium, which helps you build and maintain strong bones and teeth, can be found in foods such as milk, milk products such as cottage cheese, almonds, and green leafy vegetables. Vitamin D, which you need to effectively absorb calcium from food, can be found in foods like fortified tofu and salmon. However, you may need to take supplements to get enough vitamin D.
Watch the Fat
You’ll also want to pay attention to how much fat is in your diet. You can reduce your risk of heart disease with foods that are low in saturated fats and trans fat.
Most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, sesame oil). Check nutrition labels for information. But don’t forget to add the essential fats like omega-3s from fish such as salmon and dark green vegetables like kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts.
Got Fiber? Get Some!
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate. While it doesn’t provide the energy you get from other carbohydrates, it does help your digestive system function properly by adding bulk to your stool so it is easier to eliminate and by relieving constipation.
Eating more fiber-rich foods will help you stay regular, can lower your risk for heart disease, and can help you control your weight and prevent Type 2 diabetes. Choose whole grain breads, whole grain cereals, and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables like beans, peas, strawberries, apples, and bananas.
Drink Plenty of Water
Proper hydration is extremely important to your health.
31% of seniors are dehydrated, putting this as one of the top ten reasons seniors go to the emergency room. The best way to monitor your intake of fluids is to be sure to drink 8 glasses of fluid each day. This can include teas, coffee, juices, and even smoothies. With smoothies, you may want to add protein powders to increase the nutrients and flavor.
Play With Your Food... Really, It’s Okay
If you notice you or a loved one aren’t getting enough nutrition, it may be time to make food more fun and enjoyable. Here are some tips you can try:
- Have more family gatherings around food so everyone can participate in preparing the meal and then enjoy eating it together.
- Make cooking more fun by trying new recipes, adding some spices, and bringing in lots of color.
- Take cooking classes or follow recipes from cooking shows so you can try meals you may not have tried otherwise, while enjoying the learning experience itself.
- Eat healthy, small snacks throughout the day to keep your mind engaged and your body satisfied.
- Try new restaurants in your area, which can help expand the list of foods you enjoy and encourage better eating habits.
- Add variety by trying some international cuisine from the grocery store, an ethnic market, or ethnic restaurants.
- Try new cooking tools. For example, if you have never used a slow cooker, why not try one now?
- Include meal planning in your activity planning. For example:
- Encourage friends or family to do a potluck picnic at a local state park.
- Attend church potlucks and use the opportunity to meet new friends.
- Volunteer to help at a bake sale at your grandchild’s school. Invite your children and grandchildren to help prep the baked goods in the kitchen together.
- Pack a picnic lunch or hearty snack to enjoy during a break on a long nature walk.
- When you visit new shops, try a restaurant nearby. Or explore a new city with plans for restaurants you want to experience while there.
- If you enjoy camping, research meals you can make around a campfire and add some culinary adventure to your next camping trip.
More Helpful Tips On Senior Nutrition
The topic of senior nutrition is so important, we want to close with some additional resources and information that can help. Click the links below to learn more.
- Healthy Eating Tips for Seniors (including helpful videos) from the National Council on Aging
- Healthy Eating As We Age from the United States Department of Agriculture
- Several articles on healthy eating from the National Institute on Aging
- Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging (including a great tip for making nutrient-rich food choices) from the National Institute on Aging