Why is Nutrition Important for the Elderly?
Nutrition is important, regardless of your age. It provides energy and can help with your weight. It can also help avoid some diseases, such as high blood pressure, osteoporosis or heart disease.
As we get older we need less energy from our food, but we still require the same or more nutrients. So we have a dilemma. How can we reconcile the need for less food, while maintaining the nutrients? The solution is to eat ‘little and often’ and to eat more nutrient-rich foods.
Does Aging Affect your Nutritional Needs?
Yes! As we age, our metabolism slows down and we need less energy from our food. This means we need to eat less, by having smaller portions.
Our sense of hunger and thirst starts to deteriorate so seniors are less likely to eat enough anyway. As we get older, we find it harder to absorb and use many nutrients, so we actually require more nutrients in our food.
Many chronic medical conditions and medications given to elderly people affect the levels of required nutrients absorbed into the body. This is especially true of the B vitamins.
How Can the Elderly Improve Nutrition?
Rather than eating the traditional three meals a day, the elderly can improve nutrition by eating four or five smaller meals. Eating a balanced diet with plenty of leafy vegetables, whole grains and low-fat protein will help meet our bodies’ nutritional needs. If you find yourself lacking in a certain nutrient, make sure you take a supplement as well as eating fortified foods.
What are Important Nutrients for the Elderly?
A person’s energy intake depends on their height, weight, body type, muscle mass, level of physical activity and many other factors. Seniors tend to move around less and carry less muscle so they will naturally need fewer calories to maintain their energy level. However, they need as much or in some cases more of other essential nutrients.
Seniors notice muscle loss and lack of strength as they get older. This is known as sarcopenia and starts after reaching 30 years old. After this age, the average person loses between 3 and 8% of their muscle mass every ten years. This muscle loss frequently causes weakness, bone fractures and poor health in general among seniors.
Eating more protein combined with more exercise helps to combat sarcopenia and the other health problems this causes. Low-fat protein such as fish, poultry, lean red meat, and beans are a great source of protein. Nutrition drinks are also an excellent way of adding more proteins to your body.
Calcium and Vitamin D
These two nutrients work hand in hand with each other to promote healthy bones. You need calcium to build and maintain healthy bones and you need vitamin D so your body can absorb calcium.
As we become older our bodies produce less vitamin D which means that we absorb less calcium from our food. This, therefore, results in brittle and low-density bones, making us more prone to fractures.
The solution to this problem is to increase our intake of calcium through supplements, dairy produce, dark green leafy vegetables, and vitamin D from oily fish, certain seeds and nuts.
We need this vitamin to make red blood cells and promote a healthy brain function. Usually, vitamin B12 comes into our body when we eat protein. All it needs is healthy stomach acid to digest and separate the two. Unfortunately, it’s very common for seniors to have reduced stomach acid. This leads to a deficiency of vitamin B12 as less is absorbed from their food.
Vitamin B12 is very common in animal-based foods such as meat, eggs, fish, and dairy. Therefore, those seniors who are vegetarian or vegan have an extra problem if they want to increase their vitamin B12 intake.
Vitamin B12 supplements and fortified foods contain the vitamin in its crystalline form and not bound to food proteins. This means that the vitamin is far easier to absorb. In extreme cases of vitamin B12 deficiency, your doctor will give you an injection inserting it directly into the bloodstream.
Constipation is very common in seniors over 65 years old. This is because at this age people tend to move less and take more medications that have this as a side effect. High fiber foods help to reduce constipation as it passes through the digestive system undigested. It then forms the basis of a healthy stool and encourages regular bowel movements.
Diverticular disease is very common when a senior doesn’t eat enough fiber. This disease forms small pouches along the colon wall which subsequently become inflamed and infected. Eating high fiber foods reduces diverticular disease and other bowel-related problems.
Don’t forget to drink plenty of water when increasing your fiber intake. In fact, increase your water intake anyway for a healthy body.
Potassium is very important in your food as it is linked to a lower risk of many medical conditions prevalent among the elderly. The most common are high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney stones, and osteoporosis.
Lack of magnesium in the body is a direct result of low intake, use of certain medications and normal age-related changes within the gut.
Iron is very important in our diet as it helps produce red blood cells. Iron deficiency is very common in seniors and can cause anemia.
These fatty acids, present in oily fish and some seeds, will help reduce heart disease, blood pressure and increase brain function. All these conditions are common in the elderly and we should either increase our intake of omega-3 or take supplements.
Increase Water Intake
We’ve already mentioned this in passing concerning increasing our fiber intake. But, it really needs a section all to itself.
Our bodies contain about 60% water so the correct amount is invaluable for a healthy body and a well functioning brain. Furthermore, we are constantly losing water through sweat and urine so it needs to be constantly topped-up.
It is very common for seniors to lose the ability to detect if their bodies need water. Dehydration through lack of thirst indicators and faulty kidneys eventually leads to serious problems when the amount of fluid in our cells reduces. We lose the ability to absorb medicines, our body weakens and not only becomes fatigued but also reacts to increasingly worse medical conditions.
All it takes is to drink enough water every day. If you find drinking plain water difficult, try flavoring it with some fruit juice, or cordials. If that doesn’t work then increase your intake of tea, coffee or low-fat milk. In fact, you should drink at least 10 glasses of water a day even if you don’t feel thirsty.
Hopefully, this article provides you with some great ideas that you can implement immediately while improving your nutrition. If you liked this article you should also check how to increase appetite or tips for improving digestion. If you are facing low sodium blood levels, learn how you can help yourself to increase sodium levels.