Eating habits take on new importance as we age in order to meet the needs of our changing bodies.
Good nutrition is important at any age, and eating well should be part of everyone’s daily routine in order to support a long and healthy life.
“For a healthy diet, a person should eat a wide variety of foods,” said Phyllis H. Spalt, licensed and registered dietitian. “This includes lean meats, fruits, vegetables, carbohydrates and dairy or a dairy alternative.
The National Institute on Aging recommends specific caloric ranges for senior men and women. It recommends women over age 50 eat 1,600 to 2,200 calories per day, while men over age 50 should consume 2,000 to 2,800 for good health. While aging adults may need fewer calories than younger adults due to decreased activity levels, they often require more nutrients to maintain a healthy lifestyle. That means it’s important to be smart about food choices.
Consuming nutrient-dense foods is recommended for people looking to maintain high nutrient levels while cutting calories. Making the switch to nutrient-dense foods is easier than you might think. For example, reach for the low-fat milk instead of 2 percent milk the next time you are at the grocery store. The low-fat milk has the same nutrient content as 2 percent but with fewer calories and fat.
Good nutrition also means staying hydrated. Spalt suggests most adults should drink 48 to 64 ounces of fluid per day for optimal hydration. Seniors must drink fluids regularly even if they don’t feel thirsty.
“As you age, the sense of thirst can decrease and medications may cause you to lose more fluids,” Spalt said. “It is important to drink adequate fluids to avoid dehydration and poor skin condition and to promote weight maintenance.”
Spalt emphasizes that seniors should always check with their doctor about their specific fluid needs, as some diseases actually require a fluid restriction.
Overcoming barriers to good nutrition
Eating well isn’t always easy. Many seniors are faced with challenges that can hinder their ability to make smart nutritional choices.
Loss of appetite
“Most of the patients I see say that, as they age, they lose their appetite and just don’t have the desire to eat,” Spalt said. “Most eat because they know they have to eat, but they don’t find the pleasure in it that they once did.
Loss of appetite is common for aging adults. In fact, medications can often cause seniors to lose their appetite. If you are on a medication that is suppressing your appetite, speak with your physician about supplement or dietary recommendations.
Sensory changes can have a big impact on the way food tastes and smells, causing you to be turned off by certain foods. If you are watching your sugar or salt intake, try adding healthy flavors such as lemon juice, sodium-free seasonings or black pepper to give your meal a kick.
Structural changes to the body can have a negative effect on dietary habits as well. As we age, our body loses its lean muscle, which is often replaced by body fat, making it crucial that seniors keep a close watch on their caloric intake.
The loss of teeth or use of dentures can make chewing difficult, which also can affect eating habits. If your dentures are giving you trouble, have them readjusted. Try changing up your food preparation methods to include more chopped, steamed or grated foods, which are easier to chew.
Lack of transportation
Some aging adults do not have access to transportation to and from the grocery store, making it difficult to shop for healthy foods. If transportation is an issue, seniors may choose to buy bulk items with less nutritional value instead of fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Friends and family members can help by reaching out to aging loved ones to share rides to the grocery store. Food service organizations such as Meals on Wheels, designed to meet the needs of homebound seniors, are also an option.
Good nutrition is important to living a long and healthy life. While an apple a day may not always keep the doctor away, it is a good start for staying healthy well into your golden years.
About our experts
Phyllis H. Spalt is a licensed and registered dietitian at Norton Audubon Hospital.