During the "golden years," good nutrition is just as important as ever. But, many older adults become malnourished for a variety of reasons. If you or someone you care for is having trouble getting proper nutrition, here are some practical tips.
Malnutrition and Older Adults
While many people seem to focus their diets solely around trying to lose weight and prevent disease, the nutrition problems facing the elderly can be quite different.
For many elders, it is not a matter of eating too much, but rather a matter of not getting enough. And this all comes at a time of life when getting adequate nutrition—including protein, fiber, hydration, vitamins, and minerals—may be more difficult.
Adding to the problem is that many older people deal with a variety of chronic medical conditions. These conditions can contribute to poor nutrition and can also be worsened by poor nutrition.
Several factors can cause malnutrition in older adults, including the following:
- Loss of appetite —Older adults lose their appetites for many reasons, such as having a medical condition, having a mental health problem, or taking certain medications.
- Decreased sense of taste and/or smell —Many of the conditions that affect older adults and the medications they take can reduce the sense of smell and taste, making it difficult and even unpleasant to eat.
- Difficulty chewing and/or swallowing —Having dental problems affects many older adults and can contribute to a vicious cycle of malnutrition. As older people become malnourished and lose weight, their dentures may not fit correctly, making it even more difficult to eat. Swallowing problems also affect many older adults, making eating difficult.
- Loss of physical strength or mobility —Elders who are frail or immobile are often unable to shop and cook. Even something as simple as opening a can of soup or a frozen dinner and putting it into the microwave can be difficult for someone who is physically limited.
- Chronic conditions and medications —Older adults often have at least one chronic condition and take several medications. These can interfere with digestion, and even absorption of certain nutrients.
- Mental and emotional factors —Mental illness, such as depression, dementia, and social isolation affect many elders and can dampen their desire and ability to eat.
- Financial insecurity —Financial problems can make it difficult for many older adults to get the nutrition they need.
Although there are many reasons why older people may become malnourished, there are also many practical ways for dealing with the problem. If you or someone you care for is experiencing malnutrition or unintentional weight loss, the best first step is to see the doctor, who may be able to diagnose an underlying condition or alter a medication regimen that may be contributing to the problem. A doctor can also provide a referral to a registered dietitian, who can design a personalized eating plan. In addition, here are some everyday tips for preventing malnutrition in older adults:
Make Meals and Snacks Nutrient-dense
This means making nutrient-rich foods the focus of the meal. For example, instead of plain chicken broth, try a hearty chicken and vegetable soup. Casseroles, stews, and roasts are also good meal ideas.
Add Extra Calories Without Extra Volume
For people who have a small appetite, there are ways to boost nutrition without adding lots of extra food. For example:
- Add extra sauces, gravies, and grated cheese to entrees and side dishes.
- Stir powdered skim milk into milk, milkshakes, and cold and hot cereals.
- Add honey, molasses, or maple syrup to hot cereal.
- Sprinkle wheat germ into hot and cold cereals, and add it to baked goods, such as breads and muffins.
Use Herbs and Spices When Preparing Foods
Because many elders have diminished sense of taste and smell, making food as flavorful as possible is important. Try cooking with garlic and onion powder, salt-free seasoning blends, and fresh and dried herbs, such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and cilantro.
Make Meals Colorful and Appealing
Instead of regular mashed potatoes, try mashed sweet potatoes for a colorful and nutritious boost. Instead of plain buttered noodles, try pasta with a vibrant red tomato sauce.
Serve Several Small Meals and Snacks
Older people with diminished appetites are often overwhelmed by large meals, so eating smaller, more frequent meals and snacks can be less overwhelming.
Do Not Fill Up on Non-nutritious Items
For people with a small appetite, it is important not to fill up on things like coffee, tea, and soft drinks, which can take the place of more nutritious items.
Serve up a variety of foods. Research shows that elderly adults eat more when presented with a variety of foods to choose from. Here are some strategies to increase the variety on the table:
- Strive to include foods from every food group and of all different colors.
- Invite friends over for a pot luck dinner.
- Go out for a buffet-style Sunday brunch.
Make Mealtime Enjoyable and Social
When possible, invite friends or family over for meal times or visit community-based senior meal sites for social interaction during meals.
Use Nutrition Supplements When Necessary
While a well-balanced diet is the best bet, some people may find it easier to sip a nutrition supplement drink than to eat a meal. But, talk to your doctor or dietitian to see if this is something that you should do.
Take Advantage of Services That Are Available
Many communities offer a wide range of nutrition services for older adults, including community dining sites, home-delivered meals, and home visits with registered dietitians. Research shows that meal services, such as Meals on Wheels, can improve or help maintain nutritional status in seniors. Contact your local town or city hall, department of health, or community hospital to find out what services are available in your area.
Administration for Community Living
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Canadian Council for Dietetic Research
Dietitians of Canada
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Older adults. Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/older-adults. Updated November 16, 2016. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Special nutrient needs of older adults. Eat Right—American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/resource/health/wellness/healthy-aging/special-nutrient-needs-of-older-adults. Updated May 5, 2015. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Strategies to improve nutrition in elderly people. Better Medicine NZ website. Available at: http://www.bpac.org.nz/BPJ/2011/May/elderly.aspx. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Wells JL, Dumbrell AC. Nutrition and aging: assessment and treatment of compromised nutritional status in frail elderly patients. Clin Interv Aging. 2006;1(1):67-79.
Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 5/4/2017