This article was checked for nutritional accuracy by: Kathryn Bubeck, Registered Dietician
Poor nutrition and malnutrition are unfortunately common in seniors. (1) Older adults are at an increased risk of serious health issues, and there are many challenges that can make it difficult for the elderly to get the foods they need. Many seniors have difficulty chewing and swallowing, and elderly adults often struggle to adjust to the changing needs of their bodies.
That’s why it’s important to be proactive about a senior’s diet. These tips will help you to take a better approach to nutrition. You’ll be able to make smarter food choices and reduce the risk of health problems linked to poor nutrition in seniors and older adults.
1. Focus On Foods That Are Nutrient Dense
While seniors need the same nutrients that they did when they were younger, older bodies require fewer calories. This means it’s important for older adults to choose foods that are packed with nutrients, such as fruits, vegetables, and dark leafy greens.
When you’re cutting your calorie intake, you need to make sure every calorie counts. Try to avoid empty calories and seek out foods that will give you some nutritional bang for your buck! Read the nutritional labels of pre-packaged foods so that you can get a better sense of what these foods contain.
2. Pick Foods High In Fiber
Fiber is an important nutrient, especially for seniors. As many adults grow older, their insulin resistance increases while their pancreatic function declines, putting them at increased risk for type 2 diabetes. (2) Soluble fiber helps the body to release glucose into the bloodstream at a slower pace, making it easier to control blood sugar levels. (3)
In addition to this important benefit, high-fiber foods can improve digestion and help prevent constipation and diarrhea. Fiber can also aid in weight loss, making it easier for seniors to maintain a healthy weight. (4) Great sources of fiber include pears, apples, carrots, beets, and lentils.
3. Watch Sodium Intake Closely
Not only do seniors need to make sure they’re taking in the right nutrients, but they also need to monitor their intake of certain minerals, like sodium. High sodium levels put seniors at an increased risk for heart disease. (5) However, a diet that’s too low in sodium can also be risky. One study found that seniors with very low sodium diets saw a decrease in cognitive function. (6)
Sodium shouldn’t be avoided completely, but moderation is key. It’s best to talk to a dietitian to get a better sense of how much sodium a senior should be consuming each day. Nutrition tracking tools will make it easier for you to monitor sodium levels, ensuring that they aren’t too high or too low.
4. Track Water Consumption
Normally, when someone feels thirsty, they reach for a glass of water. However, it can be difficult for seniors to detect that they’re thirsty in the first place. (7) Furthermore, kidney function declines as you age, which can make it difficult for older bodies to conserve water. (8)
It’s important to make sure that seniors are getting the water they need, even if they don’t feel thirsty. Reusable water bottles are an easy and effective way to track water intake. There are even many water bottles on the market that are specifically designed for seniors with impairments.
5. Use Nutritional Shakes and Drinks
Sitting down for a meal isn’t always easy for seniors, especially if they have difficulty chewing or swallowing. Not only are shakes a fast and simple option, but they can help to ensure that the nutritional needs are being met. When a senior doesn’t feel up to eating, you can serve them a meal replacement shake instead.
With that said, it’s important to choose the right kinds of nutritional drinks. You should avoid products with filler ingredients and instead choose products that use healthy, plant-based ingredients. Kate Farms offers a line of nutritional shakes that don’t contain any artificial sweeteners. These shakes are packed with essential vitamins and minerals and are designed to be easy to digest.
6. Buy Fortified Foods
Many elderly adults are deficient in specific nutrients, such as B12 (9) and vitamin D. (10) While these nutrients naturally occur in certain foods, fortified foods are an easier way to make sure that seniors are actually getting everything that they need.
It’s common to see fortified cereals, juices, and yogurt. Milk is often fortified as well. Being deficient in important nutrients can lead to serious health problems. Fortified foods make it easier to prevent these deficiencies. If you’re searching for nutrient-dense foods, fortified foods are a fantastic option!
7. Use Supplements As Needed
In addition to choosing fortified foods, it may be necessary for seniors to take supplements. While it’s best to get the nutrients your body needs from food, diets won’t always be sufficient. Supplements can provide seniors with the nutrients they aren’t getting from food sources.
In addition to vitamins B12 and D, many seniors are deficient in calcium (11), vitamin B6 (12), and iron (13). Some supplements can interact with medications, which is why it’s always important to talk to a doctor before introducing a new supplement.
Supplements shouldn’t be your first resource, but they’re an excellent option for seniors that aren’t getting what they need from food sources.
8. Offer Options During Every Meal
Even when seniors have dietary restrictions or follow specific diets like plant based vegetarian plans, they don’t want to eat the same things over and over. They want to have options and the freedom to choose foods that they genuinely enjoy. That’s why you should try to offer at least two choices during each meal.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to prepare two meals every time you sit down to eat. If you keep nutritional shakes on hand, you’ll always have a backup option available. You should also prepare meals that include a variety of foods. If there’s a rainbow on your plate, that’s a good thing!
9. Keep Healthy Snacks On Hand
Since many elderly adults have a reduced appetite, they may not always be able to eat a full meal. Keeping healthy, nutrient-packed snacks on hand is a fantastic way for seniors to get extra vitamins and minerals even when they’re not feeling hungry. Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, and hard boiled eggs are all excellent options.
While you shouldn’t hesitate to offer seniors snacks, you should opt for foods without added sugars. Excessive sugar consumption can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease (14), which is why whole foods make the best senior snacks.
10. Try Meal Planning
Managing the dietary concerns of seniors can feel overwhelming. It can be a struggle to prepare balanced and appealing meals each day, especially if you’re a caregiver. Planning meals in advance can save you time, and it can also make it easier to address dietary restrictions and modifications.
You can prepare meals ahead of time and freeze them. That way, you’ll always have balanced, nutrient-dense meals that are ready to go, even when you’re pressed for time. Meal planning can save you time, reduce your stress levels, and can help you serve healthy meals to every member of your household.
RELATED: Nutrition for Bedbound Seniors
By planning ahead, choosing the right foods, and monitoring senior diets closely, you’ll be able to ensure that the older adults in your life can make the most of their golden years.
9 Common Nutrition Myths About the Elderly
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  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 .
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 .
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  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 .
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. . 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 . 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.
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.
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.