While malnutrition is harmful at any age, it impacts older adults especially hard. Older adults who are malnourished can become vulnerable to increased risk of falling, slower recovery times, possible hospitalizations, re-hospitalizations, and possibly death, according to WebMD.
Although the body naturally experiences dietary changes with age, there are a number of ways to help prevent nutrition deficits and issues related to digestion, dehydration and weight. The first step in combating the risk of age-related malnutrition is understanding the nutrients older adults often lack.
Common dietary deficiencies in older adults
Over time, both men and women undergo physical changes that influence nutritional needs and how the body functions overall. The metabolism slows, muscle mass is lost and there’s a tendency to be less active – all of which impact dietary health. In addition to this, certain medications can impact taste, hunger and digestion. In general, some of the most common nutrition lacking in the diets of adults ages 55 and older, include:
- Calcium: The heart, muscles and nervous system all rely on calcium to function properly. It’s a necessary nutrient for maintaining healthy bones, which is especially important in older adults who face a heightened risk for osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Along with regular anaerobic resistance-training activity, some of the following foods can help supplement bone strength as natural sources of calcium include broccoli, cereal, cheese, kale, milk, salmon, tofu and yogurt.
- Fiber: Not only does fiber help feed the probiotics, good bacteria of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, while helping the body get rid of waste, it also helps lower cholesterol levels and can fight the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. The average American only gets about 10-15 grams of fiber per day, when the body needs anywhere from 25-40 grams per day. In older adults specifically, fiber can help relieve GI issues and keep the body regular, especially when paired with physical exercise and proper hydration. Some examples of fiber-filled foods include apples, artichokes, bananas, beans, broccoli, blackberries, chickpeas, lentils, oats, pears, quinoa and raspberries.
- Healthy fats: All people, but especially older adults, should eliminate trans fats from processed foods and limit their intake of saturated and trans fats found in lard, cream, animal fat and processed meats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, on the other hand, can help reduce cholesterol levels and protect the heart when consumed in moderation. These healthy fats are found in olive oil, tree nuts, fatty fish, flax, and seeds.
- Lean protein: Protein’s primary function is to build and repair bodily tissue, which research has shown is necessary for older adults looking to maintain optimal health. Protein also contains essential nutrients that support muscle and bone health as both men and women age. Turkey, chicken breasts, eggs, fish, tofu and beans are all healthy sources of lean protein.
- Potassium: Data suggests one in five adults are unaware of having high blood pressure. Thankfully, a diet rich in potassium can help counteract potentially harmful effects of over-consuming sodium, so older adults should consider how they can incorporate some of the following foods into their diet, including apricots, bananas, broccoli, cantaloupe, cucumbers, dried fruits, mushrooms, oranges, spinach and sweet potatoes.
- Vitamins A, C, D, B6 and B12: Vitamins offer a variety of antioxidants that boost the immune system and combat free radicals in people of all ages. Although vitamin supplements can be helpful, it’s important to consider consuming food before supplements, so that the body can absorb and use these nutrients more efficiently. Here are some ideas for older adults to enjoy regularly to get the needed missing micronutrients to fuel the body to good health:
Vitamin A: Oily fish, cheese, eggs, sweet potato, squash, kale and collard greens
Vitamin C: Cantaloupe, berries, broccoli, citrus fruits, kiwis and peppers
Vitamin D: Fatty fish, cereal, cheese, egg yolks, milk and tuna
Vitamin B6: Chicken, eggs, fish, turkey and whole grains
Vitamin B12: Fish, meat, poultry, eggs and milk
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