Malnutrition is not simply a lack of food, but a lack of the foods the body needs to remain healthy. Without proper nutrients, the immune system is weakened, healing takes longer, and muscle weakness increases the likelihood of falls. Although a senior may have plenty of access to food, malnutrition can still be a concern.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology, “hidden hunger” is a term used to describe people who are of normal weight or even overweight but lack adequate nutrition in their diets. They may not show physical symptoms, and the signs can be overlooked even by physicians. For these reasons, it is best to monitor the nutrition of seniors.
Barriers to Good Nutrition in Seniors
There are barriers that prevent seniors from getting the nutrition they need, including:
- Overall health. The physical effort to cook food may discourage seniors from preparing balanced meals for themselves.
- Medications can change the appetite and the taste of food. They can not only alter the taste, but also make foods taste salty, bitter or metallic.
- Reduction in the ability to taste and smell. Taste buds decrease in number as we age, and our sense of smell becomes worse, which makes food less appetizing.
- Problems chewing and swallowing. Tooth loss or ill-fitting dentures can cause a senior to avoid some fruits and vegetables. Swallowing difficulties (i.e., dysphagia) also limits food options.
- Gastrointestinal changes. Gastritis, constipation, and other bowel problems among seniors may also lead to avoiding fruits, vegetables, and other nutritional foods.
- Dietary restrictions. Food restrictions that help manage chronic illnesses like diabetes can make proper nutrition more challenging.
- Financial problems. Financial difficulties have been known to increase the possibility of malnutrition in seniors.
- Depression in senior adults has been linked to increased malnutrition.
- Dementia. Malnutrition can occur in people with dementia for many reasons, including appetite loss, forgetting to eat, or the inability to remember how to feed oneself.
Before beginning a nutritional plan, it is important to consult a physician about any underlying conditions she or he suspect might be keeping the senior from preparing or consuming nutritious foods.
Getting the Right Nutrition
Older adults have different nutritional needs than younger people. As they require fewer calories, they need to make the most of the foods they do consume.
Let’s examine some specific foods seniors require to meet their needs and strategies to improve their ability to identify them and to enjoy them.
- Dietary fiber. Foods like beans, oats, barley, fruits, vegetables, almonds, and walnuts can aid in normalizing bowel movements, control blood sugar, reduce the chance for colorectal cancer, lower cholesterol and help manage a healthy weight.
- Calcium. This mineral supports bone health (a common concern for seniors), and helps muscles, nerves, and cells work properly. As we age, our ability to retain calcium decreases. Foods high in calcium include chia seeds, sardines, salmon, beans, lentils, and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin D. This vitamin aids in the absorption of calcium. It also aids in blood pressure management, hormone production, and immune and nervous system function. Sources include oily fish like salmon, sardines, herring, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified foods.
- Potassium. This is an essential mineral for cells, organs and tissues. Sources include avocados, bananas, broccoli, spinach, kidney beans, and nuts. Be aware about consuming too much potassium, as it often is linked to excessive intake of potassium in foods and/or the kidneys’ decreasing ability to filter out the mineral as we age. Talk to your physician about your potassium intake.
- Protein. Muscle mass decreases with age, raising the risk for falls. Eating more protein helps preserve muscle mass, and consumption of it has been linked to maintaining functions like dressing oneself, getting out of bed, climbing stairs, and other physical acts. Sources are eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, chicken, and fish like tuna or salmon.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. According to the British Medical Journal, an increase in omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood have been found to be associated with a higher likelihood of healthy aging among senior adults.
- B vitamins: folate (B9), B12, and B6. Many benefits are associated with these vitamins.
Before taking vitamins or minerals as supplements, however, consult your physician. Interactions with medications and side effects are possible.
What to Avoid
- Fatty cuts of meat
- Ice cream
- Smoke, cure, salted or canned meat
- Cold cuts
- Salted nuts
- Many varieties of soup
Added sugars and sweeteners (check food labels for these)
- High-fructose glucose syrup
- Agave syrup
The “usual suspects”
- Sweetened fruit juice
- Some fruit yogurts
Sugar and Salt
As the ability to taste decreases with age, seniors may experience an increased desire to consume sweets, especially if they do not take in enough carbohydrates to meet their energy needs. To combat this, seniors should not skip meals even if they are not hungry, and they should turn to healthy snacks like fruits when sugar cravings strike.
Loss of taste through aging also promotes the overuse of salt. To reduce salt intake, try seasoning foods with pepper or spices. Choose unsalted varieties of snacks such as unsalted peanuts. Be aware that processed foods tend to contain far more sodium than foods made from scratch. Read food labels and look for foods with a high sodium content. Check with a physician before using salt substitutes.
It takes some planning and preparation to consistently eat the right foods, particularly to meet the nutritional needs of seniors. This means learning what foods the body needs and what it doesn’t. To that end, it might help to compose healthy food lists as guides while grocery shopping.
Also, a food diary would allow the senior to record what they are eating on a daily basis. This will help you be mindful if you are prone to eat without thinking about how often, how much, and what you are consuming.
Plan ahead. Make a menu and determine what you are going to eat during the day before the day begins. This should keep you from grabbing whatever food is quick and easy.
Eliminate temptation. Don’t keep foods nearby that you know you shouldn’t be eating. That just makes it too easy to cheat.
Liven up bland foods with lemon juice, herbs, and spices, and have some healthy snacks on hand.
Finally, the word “diet” has the connotation of something that you must endure temporarily. Consider a healthy diet as a permanent way of living.
Know the Signs of Malnutrition
These signs include:
- Excessive or prolonged sadness
- Lack of energy
- Increased illnesses
- Bruised or dry, cracked skin
- Wounds that are slow to heal
- Out-of-date food in the refrigerator
- Weight loss
- Loose-fitting clothes
- Muscle weakness
Find more information about healthy living as a senior on our blog!