How Dietary Needs Change with Age

Nutritional needs shift as we grow older

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

There’s a reason that pet food companies make kitten food, adult cat food and senior cat food: dietary needs change as the animal ages.

Feeding humans correlates. As we grow older, our nutritional needs shift.

“The metabolism gets a little slower so energy needs decrease,” said Julie Mellen registered dietitian, certified diabetes care and education specialist at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “You don’t need as many calories every day. You’re not absorbing as well, so vitamin and mineral needs may increase. There’s a lot of talk that protein needs may increase to prevent muscle loss over time.”

To support good health, that means older adults should carefully monitor their diet to include the most nutritious foods to make every calorie count. Unfortunately, changes in hunger cues, sensing flavors or medications that cause depressed appetite or nausea can make few foods appealing. Depression, living alone, limited income, physical challenges and dementia can also lead to making poor food choices.

“Simple meals don’t have to be unhealthy,” Mellen said. “You can make them well balanced. Have three food groups represented and keep food on hand that doesn’t require a lot of work. Consider bulk cooking or meal prepping. Family can help out.”

Poor oral health contributes to poor nutrition, as many nutritious foods such as raw vegetables, nuts and lean meats are difficult to chew. For those already struggling with chewing, dentists may be able to improve their oral health for which we recommend the local dentists Parker CO clinic. Or, finding forms of these foods easier to chew can help. Mellen recommends cooking vegetables, cooking meat in a slow cooker and trying nut butters to make consuming these healthful foods easier.

To address changes in the senses of taste and smell, “try more spices and seasoning,” Mellen suggested.

She likes the plate method: covering half the plate with fruits and vegetables (mostly vegetables, one-fourth with a whole grain and one-fourth with a lean source of protein.

The local county health department can refer seniors to organizations that can help with dietary needs, from senior cooking class to senior meal sites to meal delivery.

Companies such as Hello Fresh, and RealEats deliver meal kits or heat-and-eat meals for those who can afford these services.

Aging affects digestive enzymes. This can cause quite a few problems in breaking down foods and the subsequent absorption.

“Vitamin B12 is related to memory and nerve issues,” said Laurel Sterling, registered dietitian and nutritionist and educator for Carlson Laboratories. “Definitely get your levels tested, but B12 supplements are wonderful, along with nutrient rich foods, and digestive enzymes, if taken with every meal.”

Whole grains represent one source of B12.

Many older adults do not get enough calcium, which is ideally paired with vitamin D for better absorption.

Fortified orange juice, dairy foods, plant-based milk substitutes, maple syrup, broccoli, bok choy, and kale are all sources of calcium.

Sufficient vitamin D is difficult to get from food sources. The body generates it when exposed to sunlight. From fall through spring, nearly everyone should supplement with D and some may need supplementation year-round.

“There are helper nutrients like magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K,” Sterling said.

“They all work together for calcium to get where it needs to be for mineralization.

Take it with a meal. The same thing is true for most vitamins, unless it says otherwise, for that synergistic effect of absorption.”

For supporting brain health, she said that supplements or foods rich in omega 3, coenzyme Q, are helpful, though some may have blood thinning effects, so check with a doctor before taking them.

Another change in nutrition in older age includes slower digestion. Lower activity level and water intake along with minimal fiber intake all worsen the problem.

“Fiber is a tricky thing,” Sterling said. “It can bind them too much if they’re not drinking enough with that extra fiber. They need to really increase their liquid intake.

I definitely recommend getting it through diet, where there’s insoluble and soluble fiber we need for digestion and cholesterol health. Some people as they age, their bowels go in the other direction. Having too many fruits and vegetables can cause bowels to loosen. It’s not one size fits all.”