Aging & Health A to Z
Lifestyle & Management
Many older adults need to consume relatively higher amounts of protein than they did when they were younger. This is because of the stress on your body as you age, and general loss of protein from muscles and internal organs. Protein deficiencies in older people can lead to more infections, fragile skin, longer healing times, and weakness.
If you have stress or injuries, you may need 50% more protein than usual. However, if you have certain diseases, such as kidney or liver disease, your protein intake should be restricted. In any case, you should discuss your daily protein intake with your healthcare provider before making any major changes.
Much of our energy comes from digesting carbohydrates (sometimes referred to as “carbs”). Carbohydrates are made up of various types of sugar and starch molecules. About 50-60% of your daily calories should be coming from complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and cereals, and fruits and vegetables.
Fats are nutrients that are necessary for your body. Fat insulates and protects the body, and serves as a source of energy and essential fatty acids. It also carries the fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E, and K) around the body.
Not all fats are the same, however. Fats can be saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, and are considered “bad” fats for heart health. Unsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature and are considered a “good” fat. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts out guidelines with recommendations for healthy eating for Americans. The current dietary guidelines suggest that people of all age groups should get no more than 10% of their daily calories from saturated fat.
Cholesterol has also been linked to nutritional status. People with serious diseases, such as cancer, often have low cholesterol levels (<160 mg/dL).
Vitamins and Minerals
Older adults have different vitamin and mineral requirements than younger people. Your healthcare provider or a nutritionist can advise you on the levels you need. If you are unable to reach the levels you need through food alone, many vitamin and mineral supplements are available in supermarkets and drugstores. They are generally safe. However, it is possible to take in too much of certain vitamins, including iron and vitamins A and D. Make sure to discuss taking supplements with your healthcare provider to make sure you’re getting the correct level of vitamins.
As we age, our body loses some of its ability to regulate fluid levels. That means that you might not feel thirsty, even when your body needs more fluids. This may leave you at risk of being dehydrated. Being dehydrated can lead to reduced output of urine, constipation, low-grade fever, dry gums, and even confusion.
Both undernourished and overnourished older people can benefit from regular physical activity. Try to incorporate a regular routine of physical activity or exercise into your schedule. If you are suffering from undernutrition, activities such as walking, gardening and yard work, swimming, or cleaning the house can increase your metabolic rate and increase your appetite. It also strengthens and adds mass to your bones and muscles. Light exercise just before eating can often make you hungrier.
If your challenge is overnutrition, an individualized program of diet plus regular exercise can help you reduce calories and trim down in a healthy way.
Ask your healthcare provider to recommend the best diet and exercise program for your individual needs. Try to exercise at least three times a week.
There are certain foods that you should base your diet on. Try to include the following types of foods in your daily meals:
- whole grains and enriched cereals
- brightly-colored vegetables and fruits
- low-fat dairy products
- lean meats and fish or meat substitutes
- legumes and nuts
- oils and fats that are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are not saturated.
- also do not forget to drink plenty of fluids
Here are some additional tips for making the most of your meals:
- If you fill up quickly, consider having five or six small meals per day rather than three large ones.
- Keep bowls of nutritious snacks (such as nuts or dried fruits) within easy reach.
- Use a little salt on food if it has not been restricted by your healthcare provider.
- Buy groceries that are easy to prepare. Frozen pre-cut vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh ones, and often less expensive.
- To avoid eating alone, try organizing a club of friends who will dine together regularly, or invite friends and family over. Check out Meals on Wheels or other programs that deliver ready-to-eat dinners to your home.
- Add herbs and spices, lemon juice, or other seasonings to your foods to make them tastier. Avoid overcooking.
- Take time to eat at a leisurely pace. Make sure that the settings, such as the table and chairs, are comfortable for you.
- Review your medications with your healthcare provider. If you are taking a medication that decreases your appetite, see if you can switch to another medicine without that side effect.
- If you are undernourished, look for ways to get extra calories. Snack on nutrient-rich foods, such as peanut butter on crackers. Add extra egg whites to your scrambled eggs. Make milk shakes with ice cream and protein powder added. Throw some cheese into soups or eggs.
If undernutrition is not reversed in older adults, it may lead to serious consequences including:
- Weakness and fatigue. This can lead to less mobility, reduced ability to work and carry out daily functions, and reduced quality of life.
- Depression. This can lead to reducing appetite even further.
- More infections that take longer to resolve, because your immune system is weaker.
- Low level of red blood cells (anemia).
- Reduced muscle mass, which can lead to more weakness and increased risk for falling.
- Worsening cognitive ability.
Older adults with overnutrition may have complications including:
- Problems with the lungs, heart, kidneys and digestive systems.
- Weak skin and slow would healing.
- Slower recovery from surgery.
- Longer hospital stays.
Updated: January 2018
Posted: March 2012