Nutrition in the Elderly

Nutrition is about eating a healthy and balanced diet so your body gets the nutrients that it needs. Nutrients are substances in foods that our bodies need so they can function and grow. They include carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water.

Good nutrition is important, no matter what your age. It gives you energy and can help you control your weight. It may also help prevent some diseases, such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

But as you age, your body and life changes, and so does what you need to stay healthy. For example, you may need fewer calories, but you still need to get enough nutrients. During the “golden years,” good nutrition is just as important as ever. But, many older adults become malnourished for a variety of reasons.

Malnutrition is more common in elderly persons than in younger adults. Ageing itself, however, neither leads to malabsorption nor to malnutrition with the exception of some cases in older persons. Malnutrition in elderly people is therefore a consequence of body, mind or social problems.

Proper diet and a healthy life go hand in hand, especially for older adults over the age of 65. According to reports by World Health Organization (WHO), a majority of the diseases that older people suffer are as a result of lack of proper diet.

For instance, fat in food is linked to cancer of the prostate, colon, and pancreas. Degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis and diabetes are also diet-related, more specifically with micronutrients. Micronutrients deficiency is shared among the elderly due to factors such as reduced food intake and lack of variety in their diet.

Let’s look at some age related factors that affect proper nutrition:

Decreased Sensitivity: As you advance in age, your senses become numbed down; it takes more energy and time to trigger a stimulus. Your sense of smell and taste decreases, reducing your appetite.

In some cases, some elderly ones may even have trouble differentiating fresh food from stale since your senses are compromised. This, without any doubt, would be detrimental to their


Medication Side Effects: Some medications cause nausea, reduced appetite, and change food taste perceptions. In this case, the side effects can discourage them from eating, and they end up skipping meals.

Poor Dental Health: Dental issues are more likely to come up in older people such as missing teeth, receding gums that cause teeth to be shaky, mouth sores, and jaw pain. All these factors make chewing painful and uncomfortable hence reducing the likelihood of taking healthy foods among older people.

Lack of Finances: Older people have limited resources and worry more about money. They may, therefore, cut back on groceries and buy cheaper food, which, in most cases, is less nutritious. This lifestyle can result in many nutritional deficiencies.

Lack of Transportation: To shop for fresh cooking ingredients, older people have to drive to the store, wait through heavy traffic, and park the car a distance from the door. Some may not have the means of transportation to get to the market.

Physical Difficulty: Older people become weaker with age, especially when dealing with conditions like arthritis and disability. Pain and poor physical strength can make simple tasks appear to be challenging. Performing basic functions like standing for long while cooking, carrying groceries, or even peeling a fruit may become daunting tasks.

Memory Loss: Memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease are fairly typical among older people. They may forget to follow their recommended meal program or specific meal plan. This poses a nutritional challenge.

Old age is one of the vulnerable and prone stages in terms of health status. Nutrition is an essential determining factor of elderly mass specifically over the age of 60 years. Geriatric nutrition has been always underreported, though everyone wants to make the ageing easy. Adequate nutrition is always important for better ageing. There are some specific nutrient needs that older people need and they are:

  1. Calcium and Vitamin D

Adults older than 70 need more calcium and vitamin D to help maintain bone health than they did in their younger years. To meet these needs, it is best to select calcium-rich foods and beverages and aim for three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products each day for them. Other sources of calcium include fortified cereals and fruit juices, dark green leafy vegetables, canned fish with soft bones, and fortified plant-based beverages. Sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, such as salmon, eggs and fortified foods and beverages. If they want to take a calcium supplement or multivitamin, choose one that contains vitamin D.

2. Vitamin B12

Some adults older than 50 may not be able to absorb enough vitamin B12. Fortified cereal, lean meat and fish and seafood are sources of vitamin B12. Ask your doctor or a registered dietitian nutritionist if you need a vitamin B12 supplement.

3. Dietary Fiber

Eating fiber-rich foods may help lower your risk for heart disease and reduce risk for Type 2 diabetes. Whole-grain breads and cereals, and more beans, peas and lentils — along with whole fruits and vegetables which also provide dietary fiber are also great for older people. Foods rich in fiber promote proper digestion by moving food through the digestive tract.

4. Potassium

Consuming adequate potassium, along with limiting sodium (salt) intake, may lower risk of high blood pressure. Fruits, vegetables, beans and low-fat or fat-free dairy products are all sources of potassium. Also, select and prepare foods with little or no added salt. Add flavor to food with herbs and spices.

5. Know Your Fats

Most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which are primarily found in nuts, seeds, avocados, vegetable oils and fish. Choose foods that are low in saturated fat to help reduce risk of heart disease. Foods High In Omega-3 Fatty Acids are important for people of all ages including elderly people as they help prevent inflammation which can cause cancer, rheumatoid, arthritis, and heart disease.

6. Iron

This plays a vital role in the body. It produces hemoglobin which carries oxygen in the blood from the lungs to the rest of the body. When you are not consuming enough iron, there’s a limited supply of oxygen to the body tissues. This results in feeling tired and lethargic which can be serious in older people.

7. Water

According to a pyramid for older adults created by researchers from Tufts University, drinking eight glasses of water daily was next to physical activity in importance to health. As you age, your body’s ability to conserve water decreases, so you don’t feel thirsty as often. However, your body still needs water. Dehydration causes drowsiness and confusion among other side effects so it is essential for them to stay hydrated. If they are taking the recommended high fiber diet, you need to drink a lot of water because fiber absorbs plenty of water.

For the evaluation of nutritional status, it must be remembered that most normal values are derived from younger adults and may not necessarily be suitable for elderly persons. Suitable tools for evaluating the nutritional status of elderly persons are e.g. the body mass index, weight loss within the last 6 months or the Mini Nutritional Assessment (MNA). An improvement in nutritional status can be achieved by simple methods such as the preparation of an adequate diet, hand feeding, additional sip feeding or enteral nutrition.

For Practical Tips in Guiding an Elderly to eat, here are 6 tips that are likely to work.

  • Make Meals and Snacks Nutrient-dense: This means making nutrient-rich foods the focus of the meal.
  • Add Extra Calories Without Extra Volume: For people who have a small appetite, there are ways to boost nutrition without adding lots of extra food. For example: Add extra sauces, gravies, and grated cheese to entrees and side dishes. Stir powdered skim milk into milk, milkshakes, and cold and hot cereals.
  • Use Herbs and Spices When Preparing Foods: Because many elders have a diminished sense of taste and smell, making food as flavorful as possible is important. Try cooking with garlic and onion powder, salt-free seasoning blends, and fresh and dried herbs, such as basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary.
  • Make Meals Colorful and Appealing: Instead of regular mashed potatoes, try mashed sweet potatoes for a colorful and nutritious boost.
  • Serve Several Small Meals and Snacks: Older people with diminished appetites are often overwhelmed by large meals, so eating smaller, more frequent meals and snacks can be less overwhelming.
  • Make Mealtime Enjoyable and Social: When possible, invite friends or family over for meal times for social interaction during meals.

It is important to note that physical activities also go a long way in making the ageing in the elderly an easy process. Speaking with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for the best meal plan would also go a long way in the nutritional management of an elderly person.

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