The Age Factor: Changes in Nutritional Needs for Seniors

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Lots of different factors make it difficult for seniors to eat healthy. Changing taste buds, medication side effects, and a lack of interest in cooking for just two people are all reasons that play a role. On top of that Seniors have different nutritional needs than younger people. Eating well is important at any age, but even more necessary for seniors because nutritional needs change as we age.

According to Dr. Lindsay Jones-Born, a licensed naturopathic physician, 3.7 million seniors are malnourished in America today. Dr. Jones-Born provides some great insight into why seniors have different nutritional needs:

How Do Our Bodies Change As We Age?

There are many reasons our bodies change as we get older, including physiological, perceptual and and general age-related conditions—such as gastrointestinal or dental conditions. These changes all influence the performance of our body as a whole, which in turn, influences our eating, nutritional intake and overall health.

Physiological Changes 

One reason nutritional needs change is due to physiological changes that occur later in life.  Energy expenditure generally decreases with advancing age because of a decrease in basal metabolic rate and physical activity, thus decreasing our caloric needs. Our bodies also begin to experience a decrease in kidney function, re-distribution of body composition and changes in our nervous system.

Perceptual Changes 

Perceptual changes later in life can also influence our nutrition, such as changes in hearing, taste, smell and vision.  One of the most common complaints is in regards to the diminished taste in food. As taste buds decrease, so does our taste for salty and sweet—often times making food taste more bitter or sour. Diminished or loss of hearing also affects our nutrition and food experience.  The difficulty and frustration from the inability to hold a conversation with our eating partner out at a restaurant or at a social function can limit one’s food experience.  And the loss of smell can also have a huge impact on the types of food one chooses to eat as there is a loss of satisfaction that can lead to poor food choices.

Other Aging-Related Changes 

Other changes in body function may impact nutritional intake, such as dentition, or the makeup of a set of teeth (including how many, their arrangement and their condition). The loss of teeth and/or ill-fitting dentures can lead to avoidance of hard and sticky foods. Gastrointestinal changes such as chronic gastritis, delayed stomach emptying, constipation and gas may lead to avoiding healthy foods, such a fruits and vegetables—the food categories that should be more emphasized rather than eliminated.

These factors alone may contribute to why 3.7 million seniors are malnourished and shed light on the importance of educating caregivers and aging seniors as to specific dietary need options, as well as, catered senior diets and nutritional needs.

Senior Citizens, Malnutrition—And  Vitamin Deficiencies

Malnutrition is seen in varying degrees in the elderly, along with varying vitamin deficiencies.  Malnutrition is due to under nutrition, nutrient deficiencies or imbalances. Most physicians do not see frank malnutrition anymore, such as scurvy; but more milder malnutrition symptoms such as loss of appetite, weight loss/gain, general malaise or lack of overall interest and wellness. Common nutrient deficiencies of dietary origin include inadequate intake of vitamin A, B, C, D, E, folic acid and niacin.  Malnutrition may also be the result of some socioeconomic risk factors, such as the following:

  • Loss of a spouse or family member
  • Lack of interest in cooking or eating alone
  • Fear of personal safety (which affects their ability to go grocery shopping)
  • Financial concerns
  • Institutionalization or hospitalizations (that do not ensure adequate nutrition)

Clearly nutrition plays a vital role in the quality of life in older persons. This is why preventative medicine and focusing on good eating habits is crucial. It is recommended to follow a preventative health maintenance nutritional program, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which describes two eating plans.

  1. The USDA food patterns
  2. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Eating Plan

*DASH is a lot like the Food Patterns, but focuses on lowering blood pressure.

The USDA food patterns suggests that people 50 or older choose healthy foods every day from the following:

  • Fruits—1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups
    What is the same as 1/2 cup of cut-up fruit? A 2-inch peach or 1/4 cup of dried fruit
  • Vegetables—2 to 3-1/2 cups
    What is the same as a cup of cut-up vegetables? Two cups of uncooked leafy vegetable
  • Grains—5 to 10 ounces
    What is the same as an ounce of grains? A small muffin, a slice of bread, a cup of flaked, ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice or pasta
  • Protein foods—5 to 7 ounces
    What is the same as an ounce of meat, fish, or poultry? One egg, ¼ cup of cooked beans or tofu, ½ ounce of nuts or seeds, or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
  • Dairy foods—3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk
    What is the same as 1 cup of milk? One cup of yogurt or 1-1/2 to 2 ounces of cheese. One cup of cottage cheese is the same as ½ cup of milk.
  • Oils—5 to 8 teaspoons
    What is the same as oil added during cooking? Foods like olives, nuts, and avocado have a lot of oil in them.
  • Solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS)—keep the amount of SoFAS small 
    If you eat too many foods containing SoFAS, you will not have enough calories for the nutritious foods you should be eating.
Learn more about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services DASH eating plan to decide whether it’s right for you or a loved one.

Dr. Lindsay Jones-Born, Naturopathic Physician

About the Author:

Dr. Lindsay Jones-Born is a licensed naturopathic physician in California and Connecticut, and is an active member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Born Naturopathic Associates, Inc. is the prime location in Alameda, CA for integrative medical care for patients off all ages and genders, for acute and chronic conditions. 

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