July 6, 2023

Nutrition for Older Adults: Why Eating Well Matters as You Age

Age-related physical changes and personal circumstances can impact healthy eating

Elderly woman's hands toss bean salad in bowl on a white kitchen table.

Health conversations around older adults tend to revolve around things like memory loss, safety and managing chronic conditions. What’s often overlooked? Senior nutrition.

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The reality is that aging can come with changes to your health and your life that make eating healthy diet harder to do. But older adults are particularly prone to shifts in weight. And keeping up a healthy diet that takes into consideration your changing nutritional needs and the challenges you face is important to aging in a healthy way.

“I often see aging people in my practice who experienced nutrition insufficiencies and weight changes for both medical and circumstantial reasons,” says geriatric specialist Ami Hall, DO.

Medical conditions and medication can make it hard to get proper nutrition as you age. They can affect your ability to exercise to maintain your muscle strength and your appetite. And if you have any mobility issues or can no longer drive, shopping for nutritious foods can be a big obstacle.

We get it. But we also know that eating well is important to keeping frailty at bay. It’s important for keeping your brain active. And it’s important for your mental and emotional health as well.

We talked with Dr. Hall about the nutritional needs for people over the age of 65 and advice for keeping up a healthy diet as you get older.

Why diet matters for older adults

Maintaining a healthy diet is important for your health no matter your age. A healthy diet that focuses on lean protein, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and limiting added sugar is good advice all around.

But as you get older, particularly after the age of 65 or so, eating healthy can become more challenging.

Medical conditions that tend to afflict adults later in life can cause dramatic (and unhealthy) weight loss. That includes issues like malnutrition, osteoporosis, and iron and vitamin deficiencies. Age-related changes to your metabolism or digestion can lead to unintentional weight fluctuations, too.

And as you age, your circumstances and lifestyle can lead to neglecting healthy eating habits.

“For example, the unfortunate death of a spouse can lead to loneliness and depression, which can result in a lack of interest in taking care of ourselves,” Dr. Hall illustrates. “Not to mention the added challenge of adjusting cooking habits for only one person instead of two.”

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Additionally, any loss in independence can also make it harder to shop for healthy foods and cook them properly. This can leave older adults more reliant on packaged and prepared foods or meals that aren’t nutritionally complete.

Even though nutrition may be harder to maintain as you age, it may be even more important than when you were younger.

“As you age, your body can have a harder time with certain functions, like maintaining your heart health, kidney function, bone regeneration and more,” Dr. Hall explains. “But getting proper nutrition — like enough protein and the proper amount of vitamins and other nutrients — is an important part of helping to keep those systems and others strong and functioning at their best.”

She adds that a healthy diet can play a big role in your overall health, including your:

  • Brain and memory function.
  • Heart health.
  • Bone strength.
  • Muscle tone.
  • Immunity.
  • Gastrointestinal functioning.
  • Mental health and well-being.

Tips for eating well as you age

So, how can you be sure you’re getting the proper nutrition and prioritizing a healthy diet? Dr. Hall suggests these tips:

Maintain a regular eating schedule

Some older adults may need to make a focused effort to eat regularly. But having a specific mealtime to look forward to enjoying every day can be good for both your physical and mental well-being.

Don’t skip meals. If you need a reminder, Dr. Hall recommends adding mealtimes and snacks to your calendar or setting an alarm on your watch, computer or phone app to remind you when to eat.

Eat with others

Mealtimes can be a great time to gather with friends and loved ones.

“Friends, family and gathering socially with our community makes mealtime more enjoyable and is just as important for our mental health as what we eat is for our bodies,” Dr. Hall notes. “Invite others to join you, share stories and connect while you eat.”

A shared meal can be especially uplifting if you’re experiencing depression, loneliness or lack of interest in other activities.

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Practice food safety habits

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says people over the age of 65 can be more at risk for foodborne illnesses, like Listeria and Salmonella. In part, that can be because your immune system can weaken as you age. And aging can decrease how well your kidneys and liver filter and rid toxins from your body.

Dr. Hall recommends these food safety tips:

  • Pay close attention to expiration dates and other signs your food has “turned.”
  • Take special care to wash your hands and surfaces often.
  • Cook foods like meat and eggs thoroughly.
  • Refrigerate leftovers promptly.
  • Limit or avoid soft cheeses, raw or undercooked meat and seafood and unpasteurized milk products.

What should an older adult’s diet look like?

Older adults can make sure they’re eating for their maximum health benefit by focusing on a few key diet needs like:

  • Getting your fiber: Add fiber to meals with food like whole grains, and raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Eating healthy fats: Reduce your cholesterol and fat intake and make smarter choices by enjoying or preparing food with healthy fats, which include olive oil, avocados, salmon and walnuts.
  • Reducing your salt consumption: Season dishes with garlic, herbs and other spices. Choose foods that are low in sodium or have no added salt.
  • Limiting “white foods”: That includes things like white bread, rice and potatoes, which don’t provide much in terms of long-term nutritional value.
  • Staying hydrated: Aging can put you at an increased risk for dehydration. Drink six 8-ounce glasses of water or other beverages daily (if you’re not on a fluid-restricted diet). Limit drinks that contain caffeine and alcohol.
  • Maximizing your vitamin D intake: Increase your exposure to sunlight (always wearing sunscreen, of course!) and eat foods high in vitamin D — such as fatty fish, canned tuna, egg yolks, fortified milk and cereal or supplements (per approval from your healthcare provider).

Talk with your provider for specific advice

Aging can come with health conditions that can be best managed with personalized care and healthy-eating advice. When in doubt, ask.

“Be sure to talk with your doctor about how to eat right for your best health,” Dr. Hall advises. “Your doctor may make other recommendations based on your unique medical history and overall personal health profile.”

For example, an older adult whose blood pressure drops when they stand up may need a diet slightly higher in salt. Your care team will tell you the best way forward for you.

“It’s important that older adults who experience changes in appetite and weight see a doctor before making any dietary changes,” Dr. Hall emphasizes. “Take good care of yourself, and address your nutrition concerns head-on so a proper plan can be put in place for you to get back on track to being your best you.”

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