Getting the right vitamins and other nutrients are essential, no matter what your age. But as an older adult, you may be more vulnerable to the risks associated with poor nutrition. Changes in your lifestyle, health status, and other factors can present challenges to eating a healthy diet. Understanding how your nutritional needs change as you get older can help you establish eating habits that promote an overall healthy lifestyle.
Human bodies generally require a balance of essential nutrients, including specific vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and water. Too much or too little of any vital nutrient can be problematic.
One of the special nutrient needs for older adults is fewer calories. They typically don’t need as many calories as younger people because metabolism slows with age. A good strategy is to try to focus on foods that are rich in nutrients, rather than eating high-calorie options that don’t offer many benefits.
Age also increases your risk for certain health conditions, especially if you already have risk factors like diabetes or high blood pressure. Your diet and other lifestyle factors may help reduce some of those risks, though. For instance:
- Calcium and vitamin D can help keep your bones healthy and help protect you from osteoporosis, a condition in which bones become brittle over time.
- Diets that emphasize vegetables and whole grains and limit saturated fats, such as the DASH eating plan, may help with blood pressure and cholesterol levels. ‘
- If you have a condition such as diabetes or prediabetes, your doctor or a nutritionist can offer specific dietary guidelines for managing blood sugar.
It’s important to talk about diet and other lifestyle factors during routine check-ups with your doctor, so you understand the unique nutrient needs of older adults and what applies to you.
Reasons Older Adults Might Not Eat Right
Many factors can affect diet, such as:
- If you’re living on your own and are used to meals being social or family events, it may feel strange eating alone.
- Perhaps you’re on a fixed income and are trying to keep your grocery bills low.
- Conditions such as arthritis can make you less agile in completing the tasks associated with cooking. As a result, you may choose more convenient, unhealthy alternatives such as fast food.
- Trouble chewing or swallowing, known as dysphagia, is more common in older adults making eating difficult.
- Your appetite may diminish over the years due to digestive issues, hormones, activity levels, or changes in taste, smell, or vision that may affect the appeal of foods.
Risks of Poor Nutrition
Not getting enough foods that provide nutritional benefits — or getting too much of foods that offer little nutritional value like sugary treats or chips — can be unhealthy for anyone. Still, older adults are typically more vulnerable to the consequences of a poor diet, such as:
- Malnutrition — If your diet lacks specific nutrients, it can lead to trouble, even if you’re getting plenty of calories.
- Disease — Researchers have linked diet and other lifestyle factors to conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and more.
- Low energy — Your body needs food for energy. If you’re not eating enough, your energy levels will drop.
- Cognitive functioning — Your brain needs food, too. Making healthful choices about what you eat can help keep your mind sharp.
Older Adults Nutrition Guidelines
It can be overwhelming to make drastic changes to your diet all at once. Instead, consider integrating these smaller strategies into your eating habits:
- Eat a wide variety of vegetables. Look for ways to add them to other dishes, such as pasta or sandwiches, to sneak in extra vitamins.
- Enhance the flavors of your meals with spices and herbs instead of salt. Exciting your taste buds with new flavor combinations can be particularly enticing if your appetite or sense of taste changes.
- Limit foods packed with “empty calories,” such as sodas, sweets, and junk food.
- Drink plenty of water so you stay hydrated. Proper hydration helps digestion, metabolism, urinary health, brain function, kidney health, and more.
Most importantly, keep an open dialog with your health care team about your eating habits and any issues you may have noticed. Your doctor or dentist may be able to help you overcome chewing or swallowing problems, for example. If medications are interfering with your appetite, a dosage change might be in order.
Making nutrition a priority is essential for everyone but can be especially important for living your best life as you get older.