Eating well is important at any age, but even more necessary for seniors because nutritional needs change. Adequate nutrition is necessary for health, quality of life and vitality. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, many seniors are not eating as well as they should, which can lead to poor nutrition or malnutrition, easily being mistaken as a disease or illness.
How Our Bodies Change As We Age
There are many reasons our bodies change as we get older, including perceptual, physiological and and general age-related conditions — such as dental or gastrointestinal conditions. These changes all influence the performance of our body as a whole, which in turn, influences our eating, nutritional intake and overall health.
Perceptual changes later in life can also influence our nutrition, such as changes in hearing, smell and taste:
Hearing: Diminished or loss of hearing also affects our nutrition and food experience. The difficulty and frustration from the inability to hold a conversation with our eating partner out at a restaurant or at a social function can limit one’s food experience.
Smell: The loss of smell can also have a huge impact on the types of food one chooses to eat as there is a loss of satisfaction that can lead to poor food choices.
Taste: One of the most common complaints is in regards to the diminished taste in food. As taste buds decrease, so does our taste for salty and sweet — often times making food taste more bitter or sour.
One reason nutritional needs change is due to physiological changes that occur later in life:
Energy: Expenditure generally decreases with advancing age because of a decrease in basal metabolic rate and physical activity, thus decreasing caloric needs.
Function: Our bodies also begin to experience a decrease in kidney function, redistribution of body composition and changes in our nervous system.
Other Aging-Related Changes
Other changes in body function may impact nutritional intake, such as:
Dentition: The makeup of a set of teeth (including how many, their arrangement and their condition). The loss of teeth and/or ill-fitting dentures can lead to avoidance of hard and sticky foods.
Gastrointestinal Changes: Chronic gastritis, constipation, delayed stomach emptying and gas, may lead to avoiding healthy foods, such a fruits and vegetables — the food categories that should be more emphasized rather than eliminated.
These factors alone may contribute to why 3.7 million seniors are malnourished and shed light on the importance of educating caregivers and aging seniors as to specific dietary need options, as well as, catered senior diets and nutritional needs.
Seniors, Malnutrition, Vitamin Deficiencies
Malnutrition is seen in varying degrees in the elderly, along with varying vitamin deficiencies. Malnutrition is due to under nutrition, nutrient deficiencies or imbalances. Most physicians do not see frank malnutrition anymore, such as scurvy; but more milder malnutrition symptoms such as loss of appetite, general malaise or lack of overall interest and wellness.
Common nutrient deficiencies of dietary origin include inadequate intake of vitamin A, B, C, D, E, folic acid and niacin. Malnutrition may also be the result of some socioeconomic risk factors, such as the following:
- Fear of personal safety (which affects their ability to go grocery shopping)
- Financial concerns
- Institutionalization or hospitalizations (that do not ensure adequate nutrition)
- Lack of interest in cooking or eating alone
- Loss of a spouse or family member
Clearly, nutrition plays a vital role in the quality of life in older persons. This is why preventative medicine and focusing on good eating habits is crucial. It is recommended to follow a preventative health maintenance nutritional program, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which describes two eating plans:
- The USDA food patterns.
- The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Eating Plan.
The USDA food patterns suggests that people 50 or older choose healthy foods every day from the following:
- Fruits — 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups
What is the same as 1/2 cup of cut-up fruit? A 2-inch peach or 1/4 cup of dried fruit
- Vegetables — 2 to 3-1/2 cups
What is the same as a cup of cut-up vegetables? Two cups of uncooked leafy vegetable
- Grains — 5 to 10 ounces
What is the same as an ounce of grains? A small muffin, a slice of bread, a cup of flaked, ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice or pasta
- Protein foods — 5 to 7 ounces
What is the same as an ounce of meat, fish, or poultry? One egg, ¼ cup of cooked beans or tofu, ½ ounce of nuts or seeds, or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
- Dairy foods — 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk
What is the same as 1 cup of milk? One cup of yogurt or 1-1/2 to 2 ounces of cheese. One cup of cottage cheese is the same as ½ cup of milk.
- Oils — 5 to 8 teaspoons
What is the same as oil added during cooking? Foods like olives, nuts, and avocado have a lot of oil in them.
- Solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS) — keep the amount of SoFAS small
If you eat too many foods containing SoFAS, you will not have enough calories for the nutritious foods you should be eating.
Ensuring adequate nutrition and proper intake of vitamins and minerals will help keep our aging population feeling more vital and ultimately more healthy, thus using prevention rather than intervention.
Learn more about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services DASH eating plan to decide whether it’s right for you or a loved one.
About the Author
Dr. Lindsay Jones-Born is a licensed naturopathic physician in California and Connecticut, and is an active member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Born Naturopathic Associates, Inc. is the prime location in Alameda, California, for integrative medical care for patients of all ages and genders, for acute and chronic conditions. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please visit: www.bornnaturopathic.com or call 510-550-4023.