Top Tips For Healthy Eating For The Elderly

We get asked about healthy eating habits for the elderly a lot. Many relatives or clients themselves become worried about the nutrition they should be getting as they get older. Some of our care packages include meal preparation, food shopping or help around the kitchen so we thought we’d brush up on our dietary knowledge. We were lucky enough to be able to interview Sarah Why, Accredited Practicing Dietitian of The Good Food Clinic. We asked Sarah about the best ways our clients can look after their bodies by eating healthy foods, especially in later life.

Is there a particularly common nutritional deficiency in older people?

One of the most common nutritional deficiencies which is actually common across all age groups including older Brits is calcium and vitamin D. When both nutrients are coupled together, it leads to optimal bone density which reduces the risk of fractures from osteoporosis.

Dairy foods and drinks such as milk, cheese and yoghurts are rich in calcium, whilst Vitamin D is readily available from the sun. However during winter, exposure is reduced therefore some individuals may be recommended to take a supplement if indicated by their GP or Dietitian.

Is there a particularly common nutritional deficiency in older people?

Throughout the life cycle our nutrition requirements can change, for example during adolescents, we need additional food to support growth and development. As we age and particularly once we are 65 years or older our attention should switch to ensuring we maintain our muscle mass and bone health.

As we age our muscle mass declines more rapidly meaning some of us need to make every mouthful count. Often I see raised eyebrows when I recommend my elderly clients enjoy ice-cream on a daily basis, however this can be crucial when appetite and weight declines rapidly.

Additionally, we need to consider iron and B12 levels, as our ability to extract these nutrients declines with age leaving us feeling fatigued, weak and risk of infection. Foods rich in Iron and B12 are red meats, chicken, fish, beans, lentils and fortified products such as breads and cereals.

Is there a common myth about nutrition that you would like to dispel?

A common belief is that you can ‘starve’ cancer by excluding sugar. Cancer cells are just like other cells in our body. They run off fats, carbohydrates and protein. The point of difference being that it has a deformity to cause it to replicate at a faster pace and spread. 

Although some risk factors for cancer can be modified by lifestyle changes, simply excluding sugar from the diet unfortunately is ineffective. It actually puts that individual at a further risk of malnutrition which in hand causes complications during and after treatment.

Is there typically an increase/decrease in appetite as we age?

As we age, commonly our appetite decreases due to the moderate decline in muscle mass (which is a metabolic tissue that uses the energy we eat from food). When muscle mass declines the amount of energy we need from food also reduces and our appetite adjusts accordingly. Individuals may need to eat/drink despite their decline in appetite if they are at a lower weight.

Are there any nutritional supplements that may be helpful to older people?

Supplementation is required when nutritional requirements cannot be met through the diet due to either an inability to absorb nutrients, lack of food (or variety of food), or higher metabolic needs.

Generally speaking, calcium and vitamin D supplements would be suitable for the elderly population however you should always discuss with your GP before taking them.

There is no need to take supplements if there are no micronutrient deficiencies, or risk of deficiency and metabolic needs are met through food and drink.

What types of food should we try to avoid in our later years?

There isn’t any part of food we should avoid until indicated by your Doctor.

With the elderly population I suggest avoiding eating alone. Commonly with older people, meal times are spent alone which can result in poor nutrition (whether that be not eating the right stuff or just not enough). Sharing a meal together with a friend, family member or carer, promotes healthy eating and wellbeing helping that person to feel supported and loved.

Is there a ‘Holy Grail’ food that you would recommend everyone try to fit into their diets?

Yoghurt. Now I’m not a huge fan of putting certain foods up on a pedestal however the nutritional content of yoghurt ticks all the boxes. It tastes great, it’s an excellent source of calcium for bone health and also a great source of protein to prevent muscle loss. Additionally, it’s very easy to consume for anyone that might have any physical difficulties with eating.

Do you have any tips to achieve a balanced diet on a budget?

I often recommended frozen, tinned or canned goods. Snap frozen vegetables and fruit have the same nutritional content as fresh produce. I also recommended getting creative with your cupboard staples and using leftover meat in multiple ways to keep things interesting. And don’t forget legumes! Beans and lentils for example are fantastic for bulking up a meal without emptying your wallet.

Why is hydration so important?

Water takes up 60-70% of our body. It is used in many metabolic processes, cell health, keeping your bowels regular and regulating your blood pressure. Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, fatigue, irritability and confusion. By the time your feel thirsty you are already dehydrated, so don’t wait!

By simply starting your morning off with a glass of water and sipping on a water bottle throughout the day, you can make all the difference.

Where can people go to get personalised advice on nutrition and healthy eating?

You can seek personalised professional advice from Accredited Practising Dietitians or Accredited Nutritionists. Your local General Practitioner and health community centre can provide you with details.

Some great tips and information from Sarah. If you have any concerns or think that you could use some more advice, our Care Angels will be more than happy to refer you to the appropriate professional. Don’t forget that as part of our home care plans, we are available to help with food shopping and meal preparation as well as keeping you company whilst you eat!