Seniors often have health concerns that make it difficult for caregivers to know how to help manage their diets. To complicate matters further, misinformation abounds regarding age-related changes in appetite and older adults’ nutritional needs.
Ruth Frechman, M.A., registered dietitian nutritionist, certified personal trainer and recent national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, addresses the most common myths about senior nutrition and shares tips that caregivers can use to ensure their loved ones are eating healthy, balanced meals and snacks.
Common Senior Diet Myths
- “Seniors can eat whatever they want.”
Frechman feels that this notion 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 explains. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) advises older adults to eat foods that are low in calories but high in nutrients. This includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean sources of protein (e.g. fish, poultry, beans, nuts). Many older adults experience gradual weight gain as they become less active and their metabolism slows with age but their diets remain the same. It’s important for seniors to enjoy the foods they eat because they certainly add to one’s quality of life, but the best rule of thumb is to consume treats and less nutritious foods in moderation.
- “Nutritional needs don’t change with age.”
Frechman believes that following this line of thought is a big mistake. Just as nutritional recommendations change for children as they grow, seniors’ dietary needs evolve, too. There are a few important tweaks older adults should make to their daily diets to ensure they’re getting all the vital nutrients they need. Seniors are advised 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.
- “Dietary supplements are a safe way to make sure a senior is getting all their vitamins and minerals.”
The best way to get vitamins and minerals is through the foods we eat. Seniors who eat a balanced diet should be able to meet all of their nutritional needs. However, some older adults do have difficulty eating a varied diet and others may have trouble absorbing certain nutrients from food alone. It’s best to discuss testing and treatment for possible deficiencies with a doctor or registered dietitian before starting supplementation. Professional guidance is important because dietary supplements can interact with prescription medications and it is possible to overdose on certain vitamins and minerals.
- “Eating out all the time is fine as long as we don’t get the same thing every day.”
There’s more to healthy eating than varying food options. Caregivers (and seniors who live alone) often struggle to find the time and energy to cook meals. Instead, we often choose meal options that require less effort and time to prepare, such as restaurant take-out or pre-packaged frozen meals. But, according to Frechman, these shortcuts come at a price. Restaurant meals and prepared foods typically contain high amounts of fat, sugar and sodium. This can be particularly dangerous for seniors with heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. When you cook food at home, you’re able to inspect nutrition labels, control portion sizes, and minimize salt, sugar and fat. While shortcuts are handy from time to time, consuming mostly homemade meals and snacks enables you to better monitor what it is you’re eating and make healthier choices.
- “If a senior doesn’t feel like eating, a supplement shake is a fine substitute for a meal.”
Meal replacement and supplement shakes are not suitable alternatives to a balanced meal. Caregivers often turn to these shakes to entice picky seniors and those with appetite loss to eat something—anything—that contains calories and nutrients. However, when used too frequently, these products may actually cause digestive issues and other problems. These drinks typically contain a mix of vitamins and minerals, all of which a senior may not need. A good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to nutritional shakes is that they should be used periodically as a snack, not as a full substitute for meals.
- “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.”
Older adults may lose their appetite for a variety of reasons, none of which should be ignored or brushed off as a general symptom of aging. Medication side effects, problems with chewing and digestion, loneliness, depression, and dulled senses of taste and smell are all factors that can contribute to a senior’s reluctance to eat.
“Appetite loss can cause a senior to become malnourished and unable to maintain a healthy weight,” explains Frechman. She recommends that caregivers entice seniors to eat by making meals as enjoyable and appealing as possible. Mealtimes are generally social, so try to set aside time to eat together or ensure your loved one has a friend or companion to dine with as often as possible. Try serving easy to eat “finger foods” or a variety of favorites in smaller portions. Keep meals lighthearted and avoid pressuring a senior to eat, which may be counterproductive. If none of these steps help to improve a loved one’s appetite, it’s important to work with their doctor to determine what the underlying problem may be.
- “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 a professional about their diet. “There is a great deal of conflicting and incorrect nutrition information floating around out there, so it can be helpful to get advice from a knowledgeable source,” she notes.
Medicare Part B only covers nutrition therapy services if a senior has diabetes, renal disease or had a kidney transplant in the last 36 months. However, some Medicare Advantage Plans (Part C) will pay for a senior to see a nutritionist if their doctor deems it “medically necessary.” A senior’s primary care physician may also be a good source of information on proper diets for the elderly. Lastly, Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) typically provide nutrition screening and assessment services as well as options for home-delivered meals. To see what nutrition assistance programs are available in your community, use the Area Agency on Aging directory to find the AAA nearest you.