How Nutrition Needs Change as We Age

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Many aspects of health change as you enter older adulthood, including nutritional needs.

With lessening activity, caloric needs may decrease, but the same amount of nutrients — and in some instances, more — are still needed.

“They have a lower caloric need intake as they’re not as active,” said James Mahler, director of food and beverage at the Nottingham at Loretto. “They have changes in their metabolism. They have an increased need in nutrition level. They also have age-related loss of bone and loss of muscle mass because they’re not using it as much.”

He added that a decrease in absorption of vitamin B-12, which is necessary for brain function and red blood cells, is also common among older adults. Good sources include spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli.

As the sense of taste and smell may decline, a person’s food preferences often shift towards sweet, salty foods and “comfort foods” and away from healthful things. Replacing a balanced meal with crackers, chips, processed foods and pieces of candy can lead to malnutrition and weight gain.

In general, meals and snacks should include more high protein foods. Protein shakes represent an easy way to increase protein intake. Mahler suggested seafood, lean meats, beans, lentils, hard-boiled eggs and protein supplements added to foods. Some older adults on a fixed income struggle to afford many sources of protein. They may experience difficulty in chewing some sources of protein. Slow cooker chicken, eggs, tuna, nut butters and yogurt are few examples of protein sources that are both easy to chew and reasonably affordable.

Laurel Sterling, registered dietitian, certified nutritionist and educator with Carlson Laboratories in Canastota, said that including fatty fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids can help support better health later in life.

“These foods have an immense amount of research backing up how they support brain, nerve, vision, joint, cardiovascular health, and so much more,” Sterling said.

She also recommends considering supplementation with digestive enzymes, as these decrease in age.

“This can potentially lead to more GI upsets, bowel issues and impaired digestion,” Sterling said. “Digestive enzymes can be taken on a regular basis with meals or on an as-needed basis.”

Thinking outside accustomed foods can lead to more nutritious food choices. For example, a smoothie that combines raspberries with a less palatable vegetable like kale or carrots can make it easier to consume more veggies. Or, snacking on hummus with whole grain crackers instead of potato chips and French onion dip.

Variety can make food more interesting and boost nutrition. Maria Winkworth, registered dietitian, certified nutritionist and owner of Winkworth Wellness in Syracuse, encourages older adults to “have a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables, like dark leafy greens, red, yellow and each color. They each provide different nutrients.”

In addition to B vitamins, whole grains offer fiber. Winkworth listed oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa as examples of whole grains. Beans, nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber and protein.

Bone health relies upon vitamin D and minerals, including calcium.

“Eat low-fat cheese, yogurt and milk with added D for calcium,” Winkworth said.

Some yogurt types are high in sugar, so selecting plain yogurt and adding fresh fruit is a better option.

Julie Mellen, registered dietitian with Upstate Medical University, likes the MyPlate guide, calling it helpful for “eating a variety of foods to supply a good variety of nutrients. Include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, dairy and healthy fats daily.”

To ensure adequate hydration, it helps to take along a filled water bottle.

“With aging, the sense of thirst is altered so it is important to make an effort to drink more water daily,” Mellen said.

Some medications also affect thirst and hydration.

Many people eat less and eat less nutritious foods when dining alone. Mellen encourages older adults, “don’t underestimate the social aspect of nutrition; enjoying meals with others, whether it is family, friends or at senior centers can be helpful in improving appetite and intake.”

Obtaining food can present a barrier to eating healthfully, whether that is transportation, affordability or the stamina to prepare food. Laura Vreeland, registered dietitian at the VA Medical Center in Syracuse, recommends grocery delivery through Wegmans and Instacart and meal delivery through Door Dash.

“I’ve had some patients who are using family members to pick up groceries and the patient goes once a month,” Vreeland said.

She suggests Fairlife brand milk to older adults because it’s lactose-free (lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in milk, can cause upset stomach for many adults) and, unopened, the half-gallon containers can last up to 12 weeks. Patients can stock up without concerns of spoilage.

“Once you open it, it’s good for up to 14 days,” Vreeland said. “That helps if you can’t go to the grocery store every week.”

When buying convenience foods, such as pre-package meals, Vreeland looks at the nutrition facts for sodium, protein and calories. Healthy Choice is one she recommends or, for people who need to lose weight, Smart Ones. She also likes steam-in-the-bag frozen vegetables and brown rice. They’re relatively inexpensive and take little effort to prepare, but provide sound nutritional value.