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Taking a Bite Out of Senior Diet Myths

The varied health concerns of seniors can make it difficult for caregivers to know how to manage their elderly loved one's diet.

Is it normal for a senior to lose their appetite or weight for no obvious reason? What combination of vitamins and minerals does a senior really need? Are supplements safe?

Ruth Frechman, M.A., a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, debunks some common myths about senior nutrition and offers advice for caregivers:

  1. "A senior can eat whatever they want." Frechman feels that this misconception tops the list as one of the most common senior nutrition myths. "Proper nutrition is important at any age—how you eat affects how you age," she says. The key for seniors, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is to look for foods that are low in calories, but high in nutrients. This includes: fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean sources of protein (fish, poultry beans, nuts)
  2. "A senior's nutritional needs don't change when they get older." Following this line of thought is a big mistake, according to Frechman. There are a few important tweaks older adults should make to their daily diets. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises seniors to cut back on their daily sodium intake, consume a higher volume of whole grains, increase their daily potassium intake, and eat foods fortified with vitamins D and B12.
  3. "Dietary supplement pills are a safe way to make sure that a senior is getting all of their vitamins and minerals." Grocery stores often devote several shelves to vitamin and mineral supplements, but caregivers should be careful when considering giving these pills to their elderly loved ones. Seniors who eat a balanced diet should be able to get all of their nutritional needs met from the food they eat. Using supplement pills to make up for a deficit in an elderly person's diet may cause adverse reactions with prescription medications or cause them to overdose on a particular vitamin or mineral.
  4. "Eating out all the time is fine, as long as we don't get the same thing every day." Caregivers (and seniors who live alone) may find it difficult to find the time and energy to cook meals. This may cause them to turn to dinner options that require less effort and time to prepare, such as restaurant take-out or pre-packaged frozen meals. But, according to Frechman, these seemingly handy short-cuts come with a price: high amounts of fat and sodium. This can be particularly dangerous for seniors with heart problems or high blood pressure.
  5. "If a senior doesn't feel like eating a whole meal, a supplement shake is a fine substitute." Meal replacement and supplement shakes are not suitable alternatives to a balanced meal. When used too frequently, these shakes may cause a host of health problems, including: malnourishment, and diarrhea. A good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to these kinds of drinks is that they should be used periodically as a snack, not a substitute.
  6. "It's normal to lose your appetite as you get older—I shouldn't try to get my loved one to eat if they're not hungry." An older person may lose their appetite for a variety of reasons, none of which should be ignored or brushed off as a symptom of aging. Medication side effects, problems with chewing and digestion, loneliness, depression, and a reduction in the ability to taste and smell are all things that can contribute to a senior's reluctance to eat. Frechman says a lagging appetite can cause a senior to become malnourished. She advises caregivers to entice seniors to eat by making the meal look as appealing as possible; using fancy silverware, lighting candles, and arranging the food in a pleasant manner. It may also be helpful if the senior has an eating companion. Try to schedule in some time to sit down and eat with your elderly loved one when you can.
  7. "My loved one doesn't have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, so they don't need to see a nutritionist about their diet." Frechman feels that all seniors could benefit from consulting with a professional about their diet. She says that there is a great deal of conflicting and incorrect nutrition information out there, so it can be helpful to get advice from a knowledgeable source. Medicare Part B only covers dietary consultations if a senior has diabetes or renal disease. Some Medicare Part C Advantage programs will pay for a person to see a nutritionist, if their doctor deems it, "medically necessary." A senior's primary care doctor may also be a good source of information on proper diets for the elderly.
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