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The Importance of Nutrition As We Age

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After age fifty, there are many metabolic and physiologic changes impacting the nutritional needs of an individual. A change in the appetite is normal because the metabolism slows as does the activity level. Meaning our bodies require fewer calories.

If meals are being skipped or poor food choices are being made, the nutrition of your loved one can suffer.

Poor nutrition can lead to undesired weight loss and jeopardize the immune system, making a senior more susceptible to infections like the common cold or even the flu. Many seniors experience difficulty obtaining adequate nutrients to support or gain optimal health. These challenges may be linked to poor dentition or swallowing issues, cognitive and psychosocial changes, and insufficient income. Inadequate energy intake eventually leads to chronic fatigue, depression, and a weakened immune system.

Why Seniors Have Different Nutritional Needs

There are many reasons our bodies change as we get older, including perceptual, physiological, and general age-related conditions. These changes all impact the performance of our bodies as a whole, in turn, impacting our eating, nutritional intake, and overall health.

Changes Include

  • Hearing: Diminished or loss of hearing affects our ability to maintain good nutrition.
  • Smell: The loss of smell can have a huge impact on the types of meals one chooses to eat as there is less satisfaction. Additionally, smell is directly correlated to our ability to taste.
  • Taste: One of the most common complaints is in regards to the diminished taste in food. As taste buds decrease, food often tastes more bitter or sour. This may cause seniors to have aversion to fruits and vegetables.
  • Energy: Expenditure generally decreases with advancing age because of a decrease in basal metabolic rate and physical activity, thus decreasing the needs of calories.
  • Function: As we age, our bodies begin to experience a decrease in kidney function, redistribution of body composition, and changes in the nervous system.
  • Dentition: The makeup of a set of teeth can change as we get older. Seniors with dental problems may avoid some fruits and vegetables because of this.
  • Gastrointestinal Changes: Chronic gastritis, constipation, delayed stomach emptying, and gas may also lead to avoiding nutritious foods. 

What Is the Recommended Daily Nutrition for Seniors?

The USDA Food Patterns recommends that people 50 or older choose healthy meals every day from the following:

  • Fruits — 1½ to 2 ½ cups
  • What is the same as ½ cup of cut-up fruit? A 2-inch peach or ¼ cup of dried fruit.
  • Vegetables — 2 to 3½ cups
  • What is the same as one cup of cut-up vegetables? Two cups of uncooked leafy vegetables.
  • Grains — 5 to 10 ounces
  • What is the same as one 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 whole-grain pasta usually equal one ounce of grains.
  • Protein foods — 5 to 7 ounces
  • What is the same as one ounce of meat, fish or poultry? One egg, ¼ cup of cooked beans or tofu, ½ ounce of nuts or seeds or one tablespoon of peanut butter.
  • Dairy foods — 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk
  • What is the same as one cup of milk? One cup of yogurt or 1½ 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 such as 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.

Benefits of Proper Nutrition for Seniors

The benefits of proper nutrition for seniors range from improved mental capacity and higher energy levels to a stronger resistance to illness and disease. Senior with better eating habits will feel better overall and live longer and stronger. They will also see an improved quality of life and have an easier time stabilizing their moods.

Some of the ways to promote healthy eating habits among seniors include:

  • Increase the nutrient density, not the portion size.  Large portions or a lot of different food items presented all at once can be overwhelming. For example, try serving hot cereal and soups with milk instead of water. Or add peanut butter to toast instead of butter and consider adding cheese to scrambled eggs.
  • Set regular eating schedules. 
  • Encourage social meals. The thought of eating alone can decrease appetite.
  • Use herbs and spices when preparing foods. Because many seniors have a reduced 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.
  • Avoid excessive liquids before or during meals. Beverages often fill us up and reduce our appetite.
  • Use nutrition supplements when necessary. While a well-balanced diet is ideal. However many seniors, especially those who have difficulty swallowing choose to take supplements. Talk to your dietitian to see if this is the best solution for you or your loved one. 

Managing your health and nutrition as you age can seem like a difficult task. It’s always best to consult a nutritionist or dietitian as we age to ensure proper nutrition is followed. By maintaining a healthy diet older adults can ward off many age-related diseases and improve their quality of life.

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