One of the biggest concerns facing the aging population surrounds their health status. Whether trying to retain good health or improve poor health, healthy outcomes consist of maintaining a high quality of life and daily functionality. Unfortunately for many, there may be no avoiding some physical ailments due to genetics, aging, and circumstances. Luckily, choosing healthy food options can be one of the best ways to be proactive about the health of the elderly. Unlike younger populations, older adults do face different nutritional needs and can sometimes face barriers to eating a healthier diet for their needs.
Malnutrition Concerns and Considerations
Several factors come into play that affect how and why the nutritional needs of the elderly change. Because the amount of lean muscle mass reduces as we age, basal metabolic rate goes down, reducing the energy needed per pound of bodyweight. According to the World Health Organization, these changes in body composition affect the distribution of nutrients needed, requiring less of some and more of others. One example is the importance of vitamin D and calcium in the elderly’s diet because of natural losses in bone density. The World Health Organization also reports that some of the most common nutritionally health-related problems in the elderly include increased blood pressure, blood lipids and glucose intolerance, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and colon, prostate, and pancreatic cancers.
Other than biological and nutritional needs, circumstantial and lifestyle changes associated with aging can create barriers to creating an ideal diet for senior citizens. Some of these changes can include difficulty chewing, loss of appetite, medicine interactions, eating alone, not wanting to cook, taste preferences, depression, disability, limited finances, and decreases in cognitive function.
Nutrients Important to Older Adults
In order to be proactive about the following dietary related health conditions, understanding the right food and nutrition requirements will be essential for constructing a healthy meal plan. The overall calories needed for seniors may decline, but macro and micronutrients should not—and in some cases, an increase in nutrients should be the aim. To achieve a balanced diet for the elderly, nutrient-dense foods should be targeted and empty-calorie foods reduced or avoided altogether.
According to WebMD, the nutrients most important to the elderly include, vitamin B12, folate acid, folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, fiber, omega-3 fats, and lean protein.
Importance of Fluids and Hydration in the Elderly
In addition to those nutrients, any healthy, balanced diet for the elderly will include adequate daily fluid intake. Proper hydration is essential for all ages, but especially in seniors because of some medicines, constipation struggles, reduced nutrient absorption, and a reduced sensation of thirst. Some great hydration tips can include: not waiting to be thirsty to drink, drinking a full glass of water when taking pills, bringing a drink when running errands or doing yard work, limiting caffeinated drinks (and understanding they do not hydrate as well), drinking extra fluids during physical exertion or walking, starting and ending each day with water, increasing fluid intake when sick, and reducing alcohol intake.
Healthy Eating Tips for Seniors
When creating a healthy diet menu for the elderly, focus on foods that are rich in the nutrients that are most important to seniors, while avoiding those that are calorie dense but nutrient poor. The following tips from the National Institute of Health can be used to improve dietary habits, as well as to reduce barriers to healthy eating.
Plan ahead or have someone help prep meals in advance
Get in the habit of always reading food labels
Ask your doctor for vitamin and supplement recommendations
Reduce added sugars, and highly processed or pre-packaged foods
Increase whole foods (foods most in their natural state) like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, lean meats, and lean dairy
Eat with or cultivate relationships with those who want to eat more healthy
In addition to the benefits of a healthy diet for the elderly, incorporating activity and exercise can help with overall health and wellness goals. Before making any active lifestyle and dietary changes, be sure to consult with a physician to determine individual specific needs, considerations, and limitations. By educating yourself on health considerations for seniors, you can become empowered to be in more control of your or your loved one’s health.