Nutrition for the Elderly

by Heather Reese Patient Expert

Healthy eating and physical activity are important lifestyle habits for people of all ages and they are of particular importance for the elderly. According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, 87 percent of older Americans have a chronic disease that can be improved through nutrition.

Healthy Eating Can Reduce Aging's Negative Affects Eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk for many conditions associated with aging, including anemia, confusion, infections, hip fractures, hypotension, and wounds. And when combined with regular physical activity it can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, including osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

There are an estimated 78 million baby boomers in the United States who started turning 60 in January 2006. The numbers of senior citizens in this country will continue to increase at a rapid rate over the next 30 years due to the aging of this generation. As baby boomers continue to age, more older Americans than ever will be at risk for conditions associated with poor nutrition.

Many elderly people have unique barriers that prevent them from eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular physical activity. Difficulty chewing, a sensitive stomach, reduced appetite, and dietary restrictions are just a few of the barriers to healthy eating that the elderly experience. It is important to understand these barriers and to encourage the older adults in your lives to eat healthfully.

What to Eat

A healthy eating plan for older adults includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. They also recommend a diet low in saturated and trans fats and rich in lean meats, beans and nuts.

The bulk of the diet should include foods that are high in fiber like whole-grain breads and cereals, beans, fruits and vegetables. These foods can help prevent constipation as well as lower the risk for chronic diseases.

Milk products are high in calcium and vitamin D, which helps keep bones strong in aging. It is important that the elderly have three servings of vitamin D fortified low-fat/fat-free milk, yogurt or cheese every day. Reduced-lactose milk products, soy-based beverages or tofu are good alternatives for those who are lactose intolerant.

Loneliness also contributes to decreased food intake. Many older adults would rather eat something convenient and unhealthy than cook for themselves and then eat it alone. Skipping meals is not healthy, and may cause your metabolism to slow down or lead you to eat more high-calorie, high-fat foods at your next meal or snack.

Remember to Stay Hydrated

The thirst sensation decreases as you get older and so the elderly may notice that they feel less thirsty. It's important to encourage plenty of water and water-based fluids. This includes low-fat milk, decaffeinated coffee and tea and sports drinks. Water-based foods like fruits, vegetables and soups are nutrient dense options.

It is important to remember that these water alternatives add calories that plain old H2O doesn't have. There are also many calorie free options that can be added to water to enhance the taste. Consider adding slices of lemon, lime, orange or cucumber or a sprig of mint to add flavor without adding calories. Using a caffeine-free, calorie free drink mix is another way to add flavor while keeping water calorie free.

Heather Reese
Meet Our Writer
Heather Reese

Heather wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Food & Nutrition.