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Nutrition and Older Adults

Good nutrition is important for everyone, but eating a healthy, balanced diet often becomes more difficult with age. Decreased appetite, dietary restrictions, financial problems, oral health issues, and depression or loneliness may interfere with eating. Over time, poor nutrition can make chronic diseases worse. It can also increase the risk of infection and slow down healing.

Addressing Loss of Appetite

Loss of appetite, whether due to disease, medical treatment, or simply aging, is common among older people. As a caregiver, you want your loved one to get the nutrition he or she needs to maintain strength and to recuperate, so when they don’t eat you may become frustrated and worried.

The first step is to consider why your loved one isn’t eating at all or isn’t eating the “right” foods. If your father turns up his nose his new low-fat diet after a heart attack, it may be due as much to fear as to how “horrible” the new foods taste. Or perhaps your mother’s appetite is fine, but dementia makes it difficult for her to focus on the task of eating or she craves sweets to the exclusion of more nutrient-rich foods.

Other possible causes: Some medicines can make food taste bad or flavorless, and depression often makes food just seem uninteresting. So, while keeping in mind that older adults need fewer calories, pay attention to sudden appetite changes or weight loss, and consult a healthcare professional to discover if something else is the culprit.

Tips to Boost Appetite—and Nutrition

You can allay your fears, and try to increase your loved one’s appetite, with a few simple strategies:

  • Minimize mealtime distractions. Turn off the TV and radio. If you go out to eat, choose a seat for your loved one that isn’t facing the center of a busy restaurant.
  • Eat together. Create a relaxed, leisurely atmosphere and linger at the table. Avoid clearing plates to encourage a few last bites.
  • Full meals can lead to nausea and discomfort, especially when combined with medications that list nausea or poor appetite as possible side effects. Consider breaking meals up into a series of snacks (for instance, eggs first, toast later, and a smoothie later still) to tempt bird-like appetites. Aim for six to eight smaller meals a day.
  • If appetite loss is due to medication, change things up depending on the side effects. For example, if your loved one complains of the strong smell or taste of food you can try blander dishes. Other medications make food taste blander. In that case, you can add a lot of flavor with little additions of herbs, spices, or lemon juice.
  • Cookbooks and websites are full of ways to sneak vegetables or protein into cookies or snacks, but if you think trickery might backfire, look to familiar recipes for favorite dishes. Make minor tweaks to boost nutrition or to meet the parameters of a new diet: If you typically simmer rice in water and then add butter, simmer it in low-sodium broth or fruit juice (try 4 parts water to 1 part apple or orange juice); rather than steam vegetables, try roasting them, which caramelizes their natural sugars and imparts a richer flavor; spice blends and meat rubs can boost flavor, too, but read labels and if necessary pass on those with sugar or salt.
  • Keep all the senses in mind when planning meals. Make foods visually appealing by choosing brightly colored vegetables, such as yellow or red bell peppers instead of green ones, and cook them briefly or serve them raw to preserve their color. If your loved one’s sense of smell has diminished, use fresh lemons, limes, or oranges. The oils from the citrus peels will add fragrance and flavor as much as a spritz of the juice will. Fresh herbs may be more aromatic than dried, but rubbing dried herbs between your fingers before sprinkling over food will help release their scent.

Other ways to add flavor: Sprinkle foods with flavored vinegar, or try a different cooking method, such as roasting apples to make a richly flavored applesauce that’s a far cry from the bland, watery store-bought stuff.

Important Nutrients

Here’s a quick rundown of some vital vitamins, minerals, and nutrients older adults may be running short on, as well as tips to ensure they are getting enough:

Vitamin B12 

Vitamin B12 may help protect against memory loss, dementia, heart disease, stroke, and balance problems.

Issue—Often difficult for older adults to absorb.

Solution—Eat more foods with high levels, such as fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Consider a B12 supplement.

Calcium 

Calcium is important for bone, muscle, and nerve health.

Issue—People tend to consume less calcium as they age.

Solution—Three servings of low-fat milk or dairy products per day. Kale, broccoli, canned salmon (discard the skin, but mash in the bones), and calcium-fortified juices are other good sources. Homemade smoothies might tempt depressed appetites.

Vitamin D 

Vitamin D helps body process calcium and maintain bone density.

Issue—Produced by skin with sunlight exposure, the skin becomes less efficient at doing so with age. Homebound seniors and those who live in northern climates (like New York City) may not go outside enough to produce sufficient amounts.

Solution—Three servings of vitamin D-fortified foods, such as milk or cereal, daily. The vitamin also occurs naturally in salmon, tuna, and eggs.

Potassium 

Potassium is critical for cell function. Helps to lower blood pressure and kidney stone risk.

Issue—Many older adults don’t get the recommended daily allowance of 4,700 mg.

Solution—Fruits and vegetables at every meal. Avocados, oranges, dried beans (especially black beans), prunes, plums, and potatoes with skins are especially rich in potassium.

Fiber 

Fiber aids in normal bowel function, avoiding constipation. Can help lower heart disease risk, control weight, and prevent type 2 diabetes.

Issue—Most Americans get only about half the recommended amount of fiber, and seniors are no exception.

Solution—Eat lots of whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Caregivers might want to put snack-sized servings of such foods as blueberries, chopped vegetables, or pumpkin seeds in the fridge for easy access.

Water 

Water is essential to good health. Also reduces constipation and stress on kidney function.

Issue—Seniors often experience a lessened sense of thirst, and some medications increase dehydration risk.

Solution—Drink five to eight glasses a day, whether thirsty or not. Keep in mind that some medical conditions (such as kidney or liver disease) may restrict fluid intake.

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