For older adults, our health concerns tend to revolve around our memory, our safety and our ability to take care of ourselves.
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But the reality is that aging also brings factors that make eating and staying healthy hard to do. Older adults are prone to experience shifts in their weight for many reasons. In fact, being underweight and undernourished is often a more frequent problem than being overweight in the elderly.
When and why aging adults experience weight loss
“We see patients who have experienced nutrition insufficiencies and weight loss for both medical and circumstantial reasons,” says family physician Ami Hall, DO.
For one, there are a variety of medical conditions that tend to afflict adults later in life which can cause weight loss. Nutrition-related problems like protein-calorie malnutrition, osteoporosis, iron and vitamin deficiency also become more prevalent after age 60.
Other factors such as medications or a change in metabolism or digestion can also lead to weight loss or gain.
Finally, lifestyle changes can also lead us to neglect or reduce 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 says. “Not to mention the added challenge of adjusting cooking habits for only one person instead of two.”
A decrease in independence can also lead to loss of the ability to easily shop for healthy foods and cook them properly. This may create a reliance on prepared foods or meals that aren’t nutritionally complete, another common culprit of nutrition problems for older adults.
How to keep eating habits in check as you get older
To keep our focus on healthy eating later in life, Dr. Hall has a few suggestions that we can use to make sure we’re eating right and maintaining our optimal amount of nutritional intake.
Keep mealtimes and maintain a regular eating schedule: For some older adults, this may mean making a focused effort to eat regularly. Adding mealtimes and snacks on a calendar or setting an alarm on a computer or phone app can help with reminders. Not to mention providing the recurring joy of planning and having a specific mealtime to look forward to enjoying every day.
Don’t skip meals: Again a calendar or app with an alarm can help keep you in check if you get sidetracked with other things or if you are experiencing any age-related memory problems.
Eat with others: “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 says. “Invite others to join you, share stories and connect while you eat, especially if you are suffering from any kind of depression or lack of interest in other activities.”
How to get the right nutrition in your meals as you age
Here are some ways that older adults can make sure they’re eating for their maximum health benefit:
- Add fiber to meals with food such as whole grains, and raw fruits and vegetables.
- 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.
- Reduce salt consumption by seasoning dishes with garlic, herbs and other spices and choose foods that are low in sodium or have no added salt.
- Avoid “white foods” like bread, rice and potatoes which provide no long-term nutritional value.
- Drink six 8-ounce glasses of water or other beverages daily and avoid those that contain caffeine and alcohol. Maximize your vitamin D intake by increasing your exposure to sunlight and eat foods high in vitamin D — such as fatty fish, canned tuna, egg yolks, fortified milk and cereal or supplements.
“Be sure to talk with your doctor about how to eat right for your best health,” Dr. Hall says. “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, she says. But your doctor 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.”