Nutrition is a vital part of health, especially for seniors. A well-balanced and nutritious diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein and dairy or another ample source of calcium can ensure that seniors have the vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fats they need for their bodies to function as efficiently as possible. Furthermore, eating healthily can go a long way in preventing illness, particularly diseases that are more common as people age such as osteoporosis, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
In this guide, you can learn more about the unique nutritional needs of seniors, as well as some of the common challenges older adults face when it comes to eating healthily. It includes tips for planning a healthy diet and information about special dietary accommodations provided in senior living facilities. You’ll also find valuable food safety information for seniors, as well as resources to help older adults access the nutritious foods they need.
Unique Nutritional Challenges Among Seniors
Staying healthy and eating a balanced diet can be challenging for aging populations for a variety of reasons. For some, the aging process alone can reduce the appetite, while others face challenges that diminish their ability to stay healthy. Problems with access to healthy food that stem from income and geography make it even harder for some seniors to maintain a balanced diet and consume the nutrients they need. Health conditions, medications and lifestyle choices can also negatively affect appetite, as well as absorption of the nutrients that help seniors maintain their health and stave off illnesses.
Some of the more common barriers to healthy eating faced by seniors are outlined below.
Income and Cost of Food
According to data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average senior has an income of just over $47,357 per year. Income sources vary among seniors, with those on the higher end of the spectrum relying on savings and pensions, and those on the lower end relying on Social Security benefits.
Experts claim that a comfortable retirement requires at least 10 times a senior’s annual income put aside in savings and/or investments, which means that seniors should have a net worth of more than $500,000 by the time they retire. However, the average American aged 65 to 75 has a median net worth of just $266,400, which leaves a lot of seniors lacking when it comes to an adequate retirement income.
With seemingly endless increases in food costs, it’s becoming more difficult for seniors across the United States to access the food they need. According to the National Council on Aging, more than 5.2 million U.S. seniors have faced food insecurity since 2019 and while more recent data is limited, it’s assumed that this number has increased substantially in the years since as a result of major events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Living in remote, rural areas can make it difficult for seniors to regularly access healthy food. A lack of grocery stores and farmers markets nearby can make it difficult for seniors — especially those with mobility concerns — to shop regularly, which often results in selecting frozen or non-perishable items over fresh foods.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the COVID-19 pandemic further isolated seniors living in remote areas across the country, making it more difficult than ever for rural seniors to combat food insecurities. In 2021, the USDA increased funding substantially for programs that provide fresh and healthy food to those who aren’t able to access groceries due to remote living.
Older adults often struggle with appetite, most often because of underlying and undiagnosed physical or mental health conditions. When this happens, it can be difficult for seniors to consume enough nutrients to maintain optimal health. Unfortunately, thousands of seniors in the United States are living with anorexia nervosa, which is most commonly induced by a reduction in appetite instead of body dysmorphia, which is typically the reason adolescents and young adults become anorexic. Unfortunately, data indicates that most anorexia-related deaths in the United States occur in the elderly, with 12% in those aged 65 to 74 and 28% in seniors aged 85 and older.
It’s important to note that issues with your appetite should always be discussed with a healthcare practitioner, who can diagnose any conditions that may be causing the problem, as well as provide proper nutritional guidance.
Thankfully, the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse among seniors is relatively low; however, that doesn’t mean this vulnerable population is entirely unaffected by addiction.
Those who struggle with an addiction to alcohol, prescription medications or illicit drugs frequently face dietary issues. This can include the malabsorption of nutrients or a lack of appetite for the healthy and nutritious food their bodies need. While rehabilitation can help, most seniors require the support of an experienced nutritionist during recovery to ensure they make the necessary changes to their diet and improve their overall health.
Oral Health Problems
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 68% of adults aged 65 and older have gum disease, whereas 13% deal with complete tooth loss. Related pain and discomfort, as well as a lack of strength in the teeth and jaw, can make it difficult for seniors to chew fruits and vegetables with tough skins, protein and other foods that are an important part of a complete diet.
Medication Side Effects
Many medications can affect appetite and because most older adults are taking at least one prescription drug, it’s not uncommon for seniors to experience appetite loss as a result of medication side effects. Some of the most common medications that cause appetite loss in seniors are:
- Muscle relaxants
- Thyroid regulators
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Heart medications
- Mood stimulators
- Chemotherapy and radiation
Appetite loss due to medication side effects can be difficult to manage. In some cases, seniors may need to speak to their healthcare provider about making dosage adjustments to enable them to eat enough calories in a day. However, when that’s not possible, it’s important for seniors to eat a full, well-balanced meal before taking their medication and enjoy snacks throughout the day whenever they feel able.
Unfortunately, seniors frequently experience health conditions of varying severity. Many of these can result in reduced appetite and cause issues that may make it difficult to eat. These issues can include symptoms such as decreased saliva production, slow gastric emptying, constipation and nausea.
Additionally, the senses of taste, smell and vision are important parts of the eating process, and seniors who live with conditions that affect these senses may struggle to enjoy their food in the same way they used to.
When the body isn’t functioning properly due to any underlying health condition, it can result in a reduced appetite, nausea and other uncomfortable symptoms.
Nutrition Tips for Older Adults
The importance of a healthy diet in seniors can’t be overstated, and those who struggle to consume their recommended daily intake of vegetables, fruits, proteins and other important foods may be risking their energy levels and their overall health.
The tips listed below can help seniors maintain a healthy diet, combat potential illness and nutrient deficiencies, as well as maintain a normal energy level throughout the day.
Mix It Up
Variety is vital when it comes to consuming a healthy diet. That means enjoying treats in moderation and ensuring a healthy mix of nutritious foods each day. A well-balanced diet should include:
- Vegetables, including leafy greens and roughage, beans and legumes, and carrots, beets and other red/orange vegetables.
- Fruits, including berries, apples and citrus fruits.
- Whole grains, including wheat, pasta and brown rice.
- Proteins from animal or non-animal sources. That includes eggs, poultry, nuts, beans and soy.
- Dairy products, including low-fat milk, low-fat cheese and yogurt. Those following a vegan diet can substitute dairy with almond, rice, oat or soy products.
- Healthy fats, such as grapeseed or olive oil.
While it’s okay to indulge occasionally, seniors should limit their intake of refined sugars, excess sodium, and trans and saturated fats.
Hydration is a key part of a healthy diet, and unfortunately, aging can result in a diminished sense of thirst. This means it’s vital for seniors to pay attention to their water intake to avoid dehydration.
Seniors should consume between six and eight glasses of water each day, consisting of one to 1.5 liters of fluid in total. This ensures optimal hydration and can even curb the appetite in those who overeat.
Stick To Snacking and Small Meals
Metabolism plays a significant role in appetite control. Keeping the metabolism active and working hard can help encourage seniors to eat more often. Instead of consuming two to three large meals each day, seniors can attempt to increase their appetites by consuming snacks and three to six small meals periodically throughout the day.
Develop a Healthy Routine
Seniors can attempt to boost their appetites by eating the same types of food at the same time each day. Planning out healthy meals of food they enjoy and setting an alarm to remind them to prepare a meal can help train the body and mind to eat regularly and select healthier foods.
Consume Protein Shakes or Smoothies
When eating becomes altogether too difficult, turning to drinkable foods can make it easier to get through each meal.
Protein shakes and meal replacement beverages can deliver sufficient vitamins and minerals; however, keep in mind that some brands are high in sugar, sodium and additives so it’s important to check the ingredients and nutritional guide on the packaging before relying on these drinks too much.
To get ample dairy, fruits and vegetables in a healthy daily diet, seniors can opt for smoothies made with yogurt and milk or almond milk, along with a selection of fresh fruits, vegetables and juices.
Vegan Nutrition Tips for Seniors
Following a healthy diet can prove even more difficult for seniors who prefer not to consume animal products. Finding alternatives to dairy products such as milk and cheese, as well as to meat, has become easier in recent years but often, it still leaves vegans with limited options.
This can be especially true for those who live in retirement communities where restaurant-style dining is offered but vegan options are limited or not available at all.
The following tips can help seniors who eat vegan ensure they’re getting the balanced diet they need to maintain optimal health.
Don’t Neglect the Need for Protein
While it might seem easy to just skip the protein portion of the meal at dinner time, it’s important for seniors who don’t eat meat to seek out alternatives to ensure they’re eating enough to meet their needs. That means opting for foods such as beans, quinoa and plant-based meat alternatives whenever possible instead of skipping the protein option altogether.
Consume B12 and Iron-Rich Foods
Those who don’t eat meat are frequently lacking in vitamin B12 and iron. That’s because most often, these crucial nutrients come directly from meat consumption. Eating foods that are rich in B12 and iron can go a long way in keeping nutrient levels where they need to be and keeping energy levels high.
Good non-animal sources of these nutrients can include:
- Hemp seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
When a person doesn’t consume dairy or meat products, it’s not just B12 and iron that they’re missing out on. Important nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, which typically come from dairy products, can also be depleted within their bodies. Vegans, especially seniors, should talk with their physician about getting tested for vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Your physician can make recommendations about which supplements you need and at what amounts.
Enjoy Plant-Based Alternatives
Vegan food options have come a long way in recent years. Meat substitutes such as veggie burgers, chicken nuggets and sausages, as well as eggs, cheese, yogurt and milk, are more widely available. Seniors can ingest plenty of healthy nutrients from these foods and should consider including them in place of animal products. These products can be high in sodium, so be sure to check the nutrition facts and incorporate plenty of other, lower-sodium food in your diet.
Specialty Diets and Dietary Options in Senior Living Communities
In most cases, senior living communities, including assisted living facilities and nursing homes, accommodate the special diets of residents whenever possible. Seniors looking to move into one of these communities can request meal customization if they must follow strict dietary restrictions or if they require a specialized diet due to personal or religious beliefs. Types of dietary accommodations that are often made for residents include the following:
Seniors who have hypertension or heart problems are usually required to cut extra sodium from their diets.
Some residents may prefer to reduce their intake of carbohydrates or may be required to as part of a plan to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Seniors who have issues with chewing, swallowing or digestion may have to eat pureed foods, which reduce the need to chew and make the digestive process easier.
Individuals with type 2 diabetes are typically required to reduce their intake of sugar and carbohydrates to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Clear liquids may be prescribed for seniors who have upcoming medical tests or procedures, as well as those who are recovering from surgery or gastrointestinal infections.
Residents living with severe gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease (GERD), stomach ulcers or other esophageal and stomach issues may need to restrict their consumption of acidic foods.
Halal or kosher
Seniors who are Islamic or Jewish may need to follow dietary restrictions based on their religion.
Vegetarian or vegan
Residents who avoid consumption of meat or animal products must follow specialized diets that include alternative sources of protein and calcium.
Feeding Assistance in Senior Living Communities
Many seniors struggle with the physical aspect of eating as they age. Conditions that affect mobility or cognitive awareness can make it difficult to consume food and when that happens, it’s important for seniors to obtain the help they need.
In assisted living facilities and nursing homes, meals are typically served three times a day and caregivers are on hand to help residents consume their foods comfortably.
Food Safety for Older Adults
Seniors are more likely to be living with health conditions that put them at greater risk from foodborne illnesses, so food safety is imperative. These illnesses can also affect older individuals due to aging-related bodily changes such as slower digestion, lower levels of stomach acid and weakened immune systems. You can reduce your risk by following the food safety guidelines below.
Help to Gain Access to Healthy Food: State-by-State Resources for Older Adults
Thankfully, there are a variety of programs available across the United States to ensure that seniors everywhere have access to the healthy foods they need.