Top 9 Nutrition Myths For Older Adults… Debunked!

By: Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

Fact-checked by: Kathryn Bubeck, Registered Dietician

There is a lot of bad nutrition advice out there for older adults. Here are 9 common nutrition myths for elderly people to be aware of along with well-researched advice and professional opinions.

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A healthy diet is critical to keeping your body functioning properly regardless of age. Eating right also provides the physical and mental energy required for daily life – work, relationships, recreation, and time with family. Healthy eating also protects you from chronic diseases and infectious illnesses [1] so that you can experience a high quality of life.

Eating right is obviously important for people of any age, but it is particularly an important issue for seniors. Seniors usually have health concerns that can make it difficult for their loved ones and caregivers to know how to manage their diets. To further complicate matters, there is so much misinformation out there regarding age-related changes in appetite and the nutritional needs of older adults.

Here are 9 of the most common nutrition myths for the elderly:

Myth #1: Seniors Naturally Lose Their Appetite

Seniors require less food compared to younger adults [2] due to changes in their metabolism along with a reduced energy output. Still, it doesn’t automatically mean that losing your appetite is completely normal. A sudden loss of appetite isn’t normal and could be indicative of a serious health problem.

Furthermore, issues such as dental problems or a reduced sense of taste can lead to seniors eating less. So, it might appear they have lost their appetite when that isn’t actually the case.

To see if a decreased appetite is affecting them, seniors should periodically weigh themselves to look for any changes. Any sudden loss of weight should be considered a red flag that requires a visit to the doctor.

Myth #2: Senior Malnutrition Is Nonexistent in the Developed World

According to research, older adults are at a particularly high risk for malnutrition. In fact, according to the 2019 Annual Report of Feed America, about 5.5 million seniors in the United States were found to be “food insecure”. Malnutrition also affects about 3 million people in the UK annually, 10 percent of whom are aged 65 and older [3].

Even seniors with access to nutritious food may suffer from other chronic conditions such as dementia, diabetes, or cancer that may impact appetite. Other seniors may lack the finances to buy the nutritious foods they need.

The unfortunate consequence of buying cheaper, high-calorie foods creates the strange situation in the developed world where seniors are both overweight and malnourished at the same time.

Myth #3: A Supplement Shake Is a Fine Substitute for a Meal If a Senior Doesn’t Feel Like Eating

Meal replacement and supplement shakes aren’t preferable over a balanced meal for anyone – senior or otherwise. Many caregivers and family members regularly turn to these to entice picky or appetite-depressed seniors to eat “something”.

The hope here is that they’ll somehow get some of the nutrients and calories they need- one way or the other. Liquid nutrition sources have their place when used properly but they shouldn’t be used as a band-aid.

However, when these supplements are overused, many seniors end up consuming excessive calories or higher levels of nutrients than they need. An example is an energy drink that is loaded with more sugar and calories than the user understands are there. When it comes to nutritional drinks for seniors, a good rule of thumb to follow is that they should only be used periodically as a snack as opposed to a substitute for meals [4].

Myth #4: Seniors Need Less Protein Than When They Were Younger

The opposite is actually true. Seniors should actually consume more protein-rich foods! This is especially true when they are dealing with an acute or chronic illness, trying to lose weight, or facing hospitalization, according to scientists.

During such stressful periods, an older adult’s body process protein in a less efficient way. So, if it’s being processed less efficiently, more needs to go in at the start to maintain strength, muscle mass, bone health, and other essential physiological functions. Eggs, meat and poultry, beans, tofu, and low-fat dairy are all excellent sources of protein. If whole food sources aren’t possible, be sure to supplement with protein drinks for seniors who are lacking protein in their diet.

In a 2018 study [5] that followed over 2,900 seniors for more than 2 decades, researchers discovered that people who consumed the highest amounts of protein were actually 30 percent less likely to become functionally impaired than the people that ate the least amount.

Myth #5: Seniors Are Free to Eat What They Want

Nutrition is important at any age. While seniors require fewer calories than younger people, they still require the nutritious foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and lean sources of protein.

Senior adults also retain a taste for sweets, especially those with Alzheimer’s disease. While many seniors can continue to eat their favorite sweets without any issues, high-carbohydrate, high-sugar diets can be very risky in diabetics specifically. Diabetics that eat lots of carbohydrates have close to 4 times the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.

Improved glucose control, facilitated by a meal plan that emphasizes proper carbohydrate distribution through different food groups can help in both preventing and resolving the impaired cognition [6].

RELATED: Plant Based Nutrition for Seniors & Elderly

Myth #6: Seniors Should Drink Water Only When Thirsty

Seniors should actually drink water before they feel thirsty. Dehydration has been reported to occur in 17 to 28 percent of older adults in the U.S. [7]. Not taking in enough fluids is a dangerous situation for older adults. A common cause of dehydration is too much heat but there are other causes to consider. It can also happen as the result of decreased kidney function, certain medications, or simply not being thirsty.

If dehydration occurs, the senior may suffer from low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, difficulty walking, confusion, and other health problems. That’s why seniors should drink more water even if they aren’t thirsty.

This is particularly true when seniors are outdoors in the summer or in overheated rooms during winter. Dehydration can occur relatively quickly and the senior might not even be aware that it is happening. This is why dehydration is so dangerous to the health of seniors.

Myth #7: Seniors Require Fewer Nutrients Because They Have Slower Metabolism

Age is one of the key factors that determines changes in energy metabolism [8]. While seniors do require fewer calories, and their volume of food consumed is less than that of younger adults, they still require a healthy amount of the right nutrients.

Physical activity generally decreases as people age and so does the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. That actually entitles seniors to a higher consumption of nutrients. It’s advisable for seniors to increase their consumption of vitamins such as Vitamin B12 and D as well as calcium through natural sources or supplements as recommended by their doctor.

RELATED: Causes and Consequences of Poor Nutrition for the Elderly

Myth #8: Seniors Must Eat 3 “Proper Meals” Daily

Caloric needs vary from one person to the next. Eating 3 ‘proper’ meals daily can actually be a struggle sometimes – especially for older adults. Many seniors find cooking exhausting or aren’t prompted to eat by appetite alone.

Fortunately, there’s a solution for this. Convenience dishes or pre-packaged meals such as frozen vegetables often do the trick. If you are a caregiver and 3 meals are too many for the senior you are caring for, consider swapping them for 5 or 6 healthy snacks spread throughout the day.

Myth #9: Low-Fat or Low-Sodium Diets Are Better for Everyone

A low-fat or low-sodium diet is not always the best, despite what you might have heard. Unless a senior suffers from certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, eliminating salt too strictly simply makes food unappealing which leads to missed meals. Fat, on the other hand, is a key source of calories and something that’s particularly important for aging adults that struggle to keep weight on.

The secret to optimal health for seniors isn’t a low-fat or low-sodium diet but rather taking both of them in moderation. Before making any extreme changes to diet, it is always advisable to consult a doctor or dietitian.

Final Thoughts

Simply because a person has made it to old age doesn’t automatically mean that they can’t benefit from healthy eating. By avoiding the 9 senior nutrition myths discussed here, seniors ad elderly folks can improve their diet and health… and a more enjoyable quality of life.

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33010901/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4589891/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27029988/
  4. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/dietary-supplements-older-adults#50
  5. https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/75/1/123/5106141
  6. http://journal.diabetes.org/diabetesspectrum/00v13n3/pg149e.htm
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555956/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8361073/

About the Expert

Because I strive to provide you with accurate information, I had this article fact-checked by Kathryn Bubeck, RD, LDN a registered dietician in North Carolina. She has dual bachelor degrees in Nutrition and Health Behavior Management and is currently pursuing a medical degree with a focus on oncology.
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