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Nutrition for the elderly

Vital food items can help stave off old age.

By Celine Blancas–Evidente, M.D.


Nutrition plays a big role in everyone’s health—but it gets more complicated for seniors. Not everyone understands why diet modification is necessary. Here’s a guide to a healthy eating plan, stressing the importance of nutrition in keeping the body healthy during the senior years.


Nutritional well-being in the elderly

Arturo, 80, hails from Samar and enjoys being around his grandchildren. Celebrating family gatherings with food, he says he can eat almost anything, but in moderation. He’s cut down on meat and increased his fish and vegetable intake. His diet is now mostly low in salt and sugar to prevent problems from his hypertension and diabetes. He also takes frequent healthy snacks like bananas or apples to prevent his blood sugar levels from dropping too low from his medications. He says his regular visits to his dentist allow him to enjoy eating. Although he likes to eat, he consumes less food than he used to. Aside from food, he takes his vitamins and calcium supplements regularly. 

Good nutrition should be discussed with the elderly as their needs are very different from other age groups. Many factors and changes can affect nutritional health: Older people are less hungry, eat smaller meals, have fewer snacks, and eat more slowly. Malnutrition is a common problem among the elderly.


Changes as one ages

According to Eduardo Poblete, M.D., geriatrics consultant at St. Luke’s Medical Center, healthy aging is possible with proper nutrition. Various physical changes in the bodies of older individuals affect how they eat. The most common problem is poor dentition: With poor dental alignment or the loss of teeth, chewing becomes difficult. Many older people refuse to wear their dentures as they no longer fit properly. 

Taste buds degenerate and there’s a loss of taste. The sense of smell also decreases. On top of that, certain medications could impair taste. These can significantly reduce the appetite of an elderly person. Vision impairment hinders some from preparing or cooking their own food. 

Better ways to cope with these changes:

• For loss of smell and taste:
- Try other seasonings or herbs and new food flavors.
- Avoid overcooking vegetables. Keep them fresh and flavorful.
• For loss of teeth:
- Visit your dentist for adjustment and proper fitting of dentures.
- Make food easier to chew by chopping, steaming or grating tough foods. 

Dr. Poblete says the normal action of the digestive tract slows down in the elderly. Other changes in gastrointestinal functions include constipation or poor absorption of nutrients. 

Changes in neurological function like dementia can affect eating behavior. There’s indifference or lack of interest in food, failure to remember to eat, or failure to recognize the need to eat. Others may have abnormalities in eating behavior, like holding food in their mouth for prolonged periods of time or not chewing.  

Psychosocial problems like isolation can reduce the appetite. These can all lead to weight loss and malnutrition. Energy requirements also decline with age. More diseases or illnesses are diagnosed as one grows older. These factors increase the risk of nutritional deficiency.


Dietary requirements in aging

Older individuals have more body fat and less lean muscle mass. The challenge is to meet the nutrient requirements while consuming fewer calories. The best way is to choose foods that are nutrient-dense. Lower fat intake is recommended. Refined carbohydrates and high sugar should be cut down as glucose tolerance decreases with aging. Dietary fiber intake should also be increased. The best sources are vegetables and fruits, which are also rich in vitamins and minerals. Supplements may be advised by your doctor if necessary. 

Water shouldn’t be neglected as an important nutrient. It reduces stress on the kidneys and can help ease constipation. Elderly individuals shouldn’t wait to drink until thirsty, since the ability to detect thirst also declines. Light-colored urine is a good sign of adequate hydration. 

As with any other age group, eating a variety of foods can help one stay healthy. In aging, more protein, fiber, calcium and vitamins are needed. Fat, sugar and sodium should be reduced. Sugar intake must be controlled due to declining glucose tolerance. Cutting down on sodium is advised for older hypertensives. Dr. Poblete says, however, that judicious sodium intake is important as low blood sodium levels or hyponatremia is also a frequent cause for emergency room visits and hospital admissions in the elderly.

In combination with a healthy diet, Dr. Poblete says daily physical activity is important. Thirty minutes a day can be broken down into 10-minute sessions. Walking can be increased over time as strength builds up. Balance between the food eaten and energy burned is the key. 

With the proper action, those vibrant senior years can be achieved. It just takes the right combination of diet and exercise.

For practical tips on successful, healthy aging, as well as the lowdown on supplements for seniors, grab a copy of the September issue of HealthToday.

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