There’s a reason older adults commonly love their toast and tea. It doesn’t require intense meal preparation such as chopping, peeling, or grating. On top of that, it’s inexpensive and familiar. But when an adult over 65 falls into the habit of consuming this easy combo day in and day out, serious problems can arise.
Poor nutrition among seniors
What starts out as a habit of comfort food may end up profoundly affecting a senior’s quality of life. Chronically poor nutrition can lead to weakness, falls, malnutrition, and susceptibility to illness. Sometimes the stakes are even higher: it can mean more visits to the hospital, a permanent move to a care facility, or worse. And far from being a remote possibility, the risk of poor nutrition is a reality for one out of three Canadian seniors.
Changes in fuel consumption
The physiological changes that occur in older age make proper nourishment more important than ever. Aging tends to bring a loss of muscle, as well as changes in nutrient metabolism. Dr. Heather Keller, a professor of nutrition and aging at the University of Waterloo, says this means older bodies have unique nutritional needs. “We know that for some nutrients, older adults actually need more nutrition than younger adults do,” she says. “Calcium and vitamin D would be the two big ones that I think of … [because] we know that people have increased likelihood of osteoporosis as they age.”
Keller also emphasizes the need for protein for seniors, in order to avoid a condition called sarcopenia—the loss of muscle strength and mass. “The research to date suggests that [seniors] are actually not consuming enough protein to prevent that sarcopenia,” she says. “As they age they may not be able to adapt as readily to low intake.”
With age, individuals come across more barriers to eating diverse and balanced meals. Older adults, therefore, need special vigilance when it comes to achieving a quality diet.
It’s easy to understand how this happens when we think of an actual scenario. For example, imagine an elderly woman living by herself in a condominium who would like to eat a meal of poached salmon, rice with peas, and a lightly dressed salad sprinkled with sunflower seeds.
But now, in your mind’s eye, take away the seeds, because her dentures make them uncomfortable to eat. In fact, take away the entire salad, because her ankles were swollen that morning and she couldn’t walk to the grocery store for fresh lettuce. Then take away the salmon, because she had extra expenses this month and fish fillets exceed her tight budget. What remains on her plate is not enough to give her the nutritional support she needs.
Other seniors face different barriers to a healthy diet. Keller explains that some seniors—in particular, women who have spent years cooking for a brood—lose interest in cooking for one. “Their identity is wrapped up in being a nurturer with food,” Keller says. “So in this generation of women that are recent widows, we find that some do not adapt well to eating alone.”
Physical and mental health problems also interfere with food intake. Statistically, those with depression have a very high risk of nutritional problems, as do those who take more than five medications a day. Drugs’ side effects might include impaired taste perception or altered appetite, which can easily sap the enjoyment out of meals.
Recent research found that two questions go a long way toward determining whether an older adult is in a risky place, nutritionally speaking.
- Do you skip meals almost every day?
- Has your weight changed by more than 10 lb (4.5 kg) in the past six months?
If the answer to either of these questions is yes, it’s a nutritional red flag.
Other signs of substandard sustenance include constant fatigue requiring naps, muscle weakness such as the loss of hand grip strength, a less robust appetite, and changes in the ability to do everyday things, such as getting out of an armchair. In Keller’s experience, these signs are particularly prone to showing up during a period of change in a senior’s life, whether it’s a move, the loss of a spouse, or the surrender of a driver’s licence.
Filling up the tank
Caloric requirements depend on many things, including one’s sex and level of physical activity. Generally, seniors aged 71 and older require anywhere from 1,550 to 2,500 calories every day.
Frances Arnold is a registered dietitian who serves the over-65 population. Giving an example of a senior who requires 1,200 calories per day, she says, “Rather than focusing on calories, I emphasize that people focus on the content of those calories. You can eat 1,200 calories that actually deplete your body of nourishment, such as sugar, additives, and trans fats … Or, you can eat 1,200 calories that restore your body, helping defend you from rapid aging, colds, flu, and chronic diseases.”
Keller would agree. “If you don’t have anything in your gas tank, guess what? Your car doesn’t go,” she says. “We’re recognizing more and more the importance of quality food.” She recommends eating from at least three food groups at every meal, while including a good source of protein and at least one fruit or vegetable.
Keller and Arnold offer their top tips for helping older adults achieve a better diet.
Power up with protein
The buzz at a recent research meeting, says Keller, was around the one change that is thought to hold the greatest potential for improving function and quality of life in those over 65: the inclusion of 30 g of protein in each meal.
Not all protein sources are expensive—vegetarian proteins are generally easier on the wallet, as are certain types of animal proteins and fish. Including 30 g of high quality, budget-friendly protein in a meal can look like
- 3/4 cup (180 mL) plain Greek yogurt and 1/2 cup (125 mL) raw almonds
- half of a roasted chicken breast
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, 1 piece of rye bread, and 2 oz (57 g) cheddar cheese
- half a can of salmon and 1 cup (250 mL) edamame (shelled and prepared soybeans)
“Trying to spread the nutrition throughout the day would be key,” says Keller. Even a few walnuts or grapes count, and regular small portions could go down more easily.
A teenager eating alone might simply take a photo of her roasted mushroom agnolotti to share with all her friends on social media. Most seniors have to plan a little harder to make eating social.
When it’s not suitable to invite people over for meals, seniors can take advantage of community centre programs that focus on food, or just meet up with friends. “Building it into your life is the trick,” says Keller. “Maybe it’s a food club where [people] would exchange recipes, like a lunch club where they meet once a month at someone’s house.”
Eat functional foods
For those with a low appetite, functional foods—those tailored to offer a health benefit beyond basic nutritional needs—can be a good way to pack more nutrients into fewer bites. Health food stores have an array of common products, from yogurt to eggs, that are boosted with bioactive compounds such as antioxidants, dietary fibre, omega-3 fatty acids, plant sterols, prebiotics, and probiotics.
Add to comfort foods
Arnold says comfort foods can be a great starting place for stimulating appetite and interest in eating; adding easy-to-eat extras can make them more nutritious. So an older adult doesn’t always need to shy away from macaroni and cheese, but could boost its nutritional value by adding plain Greek yogurt, avocado chunks, or a spoonful of nutritional yeast.
Establishing food routines can reduce the burden of planning and choosing every meal. Maybe it’s always oatmeal with toppings for breakfast, protein and steamed vegetables for lunch, and some kind of soup for dinner. Speaking with a professional nutritionist can help establish standard menus that cover all the nutritional bases.
Another routine that might make it easier for seniors to access good quality foods regularly is by ordering through a weekly food delivery service. That way, if they don’t make it to the store for fresh ingredients one day, they’ll still have a full pantry. Many services specialize in natural, local, and organic products. Ask around at farmers’ markets or stores, ask friends and family, or do an online search to find a local option.
While hosting a younger family member or friend, a senior might ask the visitor to do something that will make a balanced diet a little easier to achieve that week. Cutting up carrots or portioning raw chicken might even be a pleasant activity for the visitor while chatting.
Stellar seniors’ supplements
Older adults should consider these nutritional supplements, subject to the advice of their health care practitioner:
|Supplement||Possible health benefit|
|calcium and vitamin D||prevents osteoporosis, in conjunction with exercise|
|zinc||improves taste perception in some cases|
|whey protein||improves muscle protein synthesis after exercise|
|multivitamin tailored to seniors||can help to fill in any possible gaps in one’s diet|
|vitamin B12||treating vitamin B12 deficiency, which is common in the elderly|
Foods fit for seniors
While a personalized nutritional plan is ideal, most seniors would benefit from having more of these foods in their diet.
|What to eat||What it contains|
|berries: blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries||antioxidants for helping to protect against cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and macular degeneration|
|beets||nitric oxide precursors for heart health|
|dark green leafy vegetables: bok choy, chard, kale, and spinach||antioxidants for helping to prevent cancer|
|fish: salmon, sardines, and anchovies||omega-3 fatty acids for heart health and potentially improving arthritis symptoms|
|cinnamon||compounds that may improve blood sugar control|
|turmeric||curcumin for decreasing swelling and inflammation|