No matter your age, it can be difficult to maintain a healthy diet. We all know what a healthy diet involves; eating more fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains while reducing the amount of sodium, hydrogenated fats and added sugars in our food.
For many older adults, good nutrition can become even more of a challenge. In addition to the physical changes we experience as we age, there can be emotional changes. It can be tiresome and seem overwhelming to cook for one or two. Just getting to the grocery store can also be tough. Unfortunately, more than 3.7 million seniors are malnourished. These physical, emotional and other age related changes can impact overall nutrition in the elderly and may play a large role in malnourishment in seniors.
Age related physical changes affect how the body processes food. One of the more obvious changes is a slowing metabolism. The body’s metabolism slows naturally over time but this change becomes more pronounced when paired with a decrease in activity and exercise. A slower metabolism and decreased activity means seniors need to eat less to maintain a healthy weight. Because of this change, the foods eaten need to be as nutrient rich as possible; things like fruits and vegetables instead of boxed meals and sweets.
Another age related change can be appetite. Many seniors take one or more medications that can cause side effects like stomach upset or appetite loss. These side effects can lead to poor nutrition. Sometimes even changes in hearing, taste, smell and vision can impact appetite. Taste buds decrease over time which can make food taste bitter and the loss of smell can impact the types of food we eat. These senses help us enjoy a meal and give us a sense of satisfaction. The loss of satisfaction at meal times can lead to poor food choices. Loss of appetite can even be related to emotional health or depression. Seniors who feel depressed or lonely often lose interest in eating.
Without a balanced diet, malnutrition is something to watch for and may take a while to present itself with physical signs or symptoms. However, there are a few signs to watch for, and to share with a doctor: unexplained fatigue, brittle and dry hair, ridged nails, diarrhea, apathy or irritability, and a chronic lack of appetite. A doctor can do blood tests to determine nutrient deficiencies in seniors.
It is clear that nutrition can impact quality of life in older adults. Simple changes in diet can help keep certain health conditions at bay. Nutritious foods can prevent constipation, heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol as well as help to maintain a healthy weight and increase energy levels.
Below are some simple changes to help optimize nutrition.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables – make sure to include all colors of the rainbow every day
- Choose whole grains and lean proteins
- Cut out sweets
- Eat almonds, leafy green vegetables and small amounts of cheese to increase calcium intake
- Use healthy oils like olive, coconut and flaxseed
- Drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day. For example, if you weigh 180lbs, try to drink 90oz of water each day.
- Exercise a little each day, even just a short walk can make a difference
Changing diet and lifestyle can be an overwhelming process so the best way to make the changes last is to make them slowly. Make a small change first and stick with it for several weeks before making the next adjustment.