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Eating Well in Older Age

Nutrition Tips and Tricks

While it might be more difficult to get good nutrition later in life, a handful of strategies can help.

As we age, we come to expect certain changes like gray hair, wrinkles, and vision challenges. It’s no shock that we can’t run as fast as we used to, nor are periodic aches and pains total bolts from the blue. But what about when change comes to more routine aspects of daily life, like your appetite and eating patterns? That’s a different story, and one that can have its fair share of surprises.

In later life, it’s all too common for some of us who once loved and enjoyed full meals to find ourselves unmotivated – or struggling – to pick up our forks. Understanding why this happens and preparing for how to cope is important if we want to remain strong and healthy as we grow older.

Tips for a Healthy Plate

Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables

elderly man eating
  • Choose brightly colored vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, and broccoli at mealtime.
  • Enjoy deep-colored fruits such as berries or peaches for snacks or as dessert.

Make at least half your grains whole grains

  • Choose 100% whole grain-cereals, breads, crackers, rice, and pasta.

Vary your protein

  • Choose a variety of foods (including plant-based sources) like beans, tofu, peanut butter, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.
  • Keep meat and poultry portions small and lean.

Common Obstacles

From higher risk of dental issues to decreasing hunger hormones, growing older can bring mealtime obstacles. A few of the most common include:

Decreased appetite.

By the time we reach our mid-60s and early 70s, our slowing metabolisms and shifting hormones make us less hungry for food – and we don’t need as much. However, needing fewer calories puts a higher importance on the quality of calories we consume, and it’s far too easy to fill up on less-than-nutritious food.

Dulled senses.

“Often, older adults suffer from loss of smell, called anosmia,” says Dr. Paul Miranda, family medicine physician and medical director of Balanced Life Family Medicine. “Since taste is directly related to smell, many lose their desire to eat because food no longer tastes good.”

Financial or physical challenges.

“Living on a lower fixed income can make paying for high quality foods more challenging,” says Dr. Lorna Birch, a geriatrician with Alexian Brothers PACE. “Physical conditions such as arthritis or weakness from a stroke can also make it difficult to buy and prepare food.”

Low mood.

Depression and social isolation are common causes of loss of appetite among older adults. “People tend to eat better when they eat with others, and as you age the loss of a spouse or friends can lead to more and more isolation,” says Dr. Birch.

Medications.

Most older adults are on one or more medications, and many of these can change the way the taste buds work and lead to a general loss of appetite.

Oral health issues.

“Sometimes poor nutrition is related to dental issues in older adults,” says Dr. Susan Gouge, on-site physician at Life Care Center of Ooltewah. “For example, if you don’t have your back teeth, chewing up certain foods will require more effort and may cause you to eat less, as well as less nutritional things.”

No Access.

“Another reason older adults have difficulty getting the nutrition they need is lack of transportation,” says Dr. Miranda. “Sometimes, there is also a lack of accessibility to grocery stores. Many older adults live in a food desert.”

*Food Desert: An area where there is an inadequate number of food stores that offer healthy alternatives to pre-packaged and processed foods.

Dangers of Malnutrition

For some older adults, the natural decrease in appetite combined with the situational challenges of aging can make malnutrition a real concern. Malnutrition poses special problems for the older population, as it can lead to a weakened immune system, weak muscles, and the inability to properly heal from wounds. Dr. Birch adds that malnutrition can even contribute to an increased risk of death. “It’s associated with longer hospital stays, increased infections, anemia, weakness, loss of energy, poor memory, and alterations in the integrity of the skin,” she says. 

Taking a Closer Look

plate of grilled chicken with two lemon slices, sauce, and a portion of vegetables

Discovering the cause of any nutritional deficit begins with a thorough assessment of a person’s eating habits. Think through what could be causing any loss of appetite or poor eating – this is the first step to avoiding any health risks associated with low appetite or malnutrition.

“You usually have to look at the big picture to figure out what’s missing. Is the person filling up faster? Are they forgetting to eat? Are they living alone, lonely, and depressed?” says Dr. Gouge. “If you’re caring for someone who’s struggling to eat or eat well, it’s important to talk to that person to see if you can get to the root of it. Then you can work together to counter these causes, whether that involves offering to take them to the dentist or making meals a social event.”

Finding solutions can take time, so it’s helpful if obstacles are tackled in the context of a close relationship, Dr. Gouge says. “Sometimes there will be four or five different things contributing to the problem, and as you move closer to the situation and begin to insert yourself into another person’s life, you can better find out what’s going on.”

A Better Plate for Older Adults

In 2011, Tufts University researchers modified USDA’s MyPlate food model to better suit the needs of adults over age 70. Called MyPlate for Older Adults, the updated model takes into account an older adult’s need for fewer calories and more nutrient-dense foods. It also offers additional guidance about the forms of foods that can best meet these needs.

Strategies for Healthier Eating

Looking for tips? Here are some steps you can take to ensure you or your loved  one is receiving adequate nutrition.

Set a schedule. If you’re struggling to eat full meals, set a schedule for yourself where you eat smaller meals throughout the day. This will ensure that you don’t skip meals. Plus, it’s a more manageable way to get all of the calories and nutrition you need for each day. “If weight loss is an issue, this type of eating plan can promote weight gain,” says Dr. Birch. 

Focus on nutrient-dense foods. As you plan your meals, avoid empty calories and focus on foods that contain the important nutrients you need. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein over chips and soda.

Mix it up. If you’re struggling with low appetite, think of new ways to prepare your meals that can make them more interesting or desirable. If you prepare a vegetable or a piece of chicken in a new and exciting way, you may be able to spark your tastebuds into action.

green leafy vegetables in bowl

Make it social. Consider inviting a friend or relative to share the meal with you. “Eating with others can give you the motivation you need to sit down and eat a balanced meal,” says Dr. Birch.

Make it easy. “Sometimes the solution can be as simple as going along with someone else to the store,” says Dr. Gouge. “Other times, it can be really helpful to stock up the freezer or pantry with prepared nutritious foods, so all you have to do is heat it up or open the package.”

Break a sweat. Getting exercise every day is another natural way to boost your appetite. Taking a walk before every meal or aiming to get 30 minutes of exercise every day will go a long way toward increasing your appetite naturally.

Use fortified foods or a supplement. If you’re having trouble meeting all of your nutritional needs with food, consider supplementing your daily food intake with certain vitamins or nutrient-dense shakes – just make sure you and your doctor agree that this is a good way to meet your needs. “These should complement your meals, rather than replace them,” says Dr. Birch.

Learn More

If you or someone you love seems to be losing their appetite, don’t overlook it as a natural part of aging. Loss of appetite can signal a serious problem in your or your loved one’s health. “If you’re truly concerned about someone who has lost weight or isn’t eating, always involve your physician as there may be other issues contributing to it,” says Dr. Gouge. 

You can find important information about adequate nutrition at nutrition.gov, healthfinder.gov, and choosemyplate.gov. Our appetites will naturally change as we grow older, but there is no need for those changes to lead to health complications. As our appetites change, our needs change, and we can adequately meet those needs as long as we are willing to stay in tune with our bodies.

Proceed with Caution

Supplements are designed to address specific deficiencies, either than stand in for a meal or food group. It’s important to work with a health care professional to determine how much is appropriate to take.

Picture of Paul Miranda, MD

Paul Miranda, MD

Family Medicine Physician and medical Director, Balanced Life Family Medicine

Picture of Lorna Birch, MD, FACP

Lorna Birch, MD, FACP

Geriatrician, Alexian Brothers PACE

Picture of Susan J. Gouge, DO

Susan J. Gouge, DO

Family Medicine Physician, On-Site Physician, Life Care Center of Ooltewah

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