Nutritional needs change throughout life from birth to death but many older adults think that the diet, or eating plan, that served them well in their younger years will continue to serve them well for the remainder of their lives and this simply is not true. Various factors affect the nutritional needs of older individuals, including past diet, physical condition, medications, and medical conditions. Every person is an individual and there are no global absolutes, but there are some general guidelines for adequate nutrition for older adults.
The best way to design a nutritional plan for any age is to begin large and fine tune from there. Start with the calories and macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates and fats. Studies show that older people need fewer calories as they age, due to a slowing metabolism and less energy expenditure. This is why many people begin to gain weight as they age. They are taking in the same amount of calories as when they were younger but not expending the same amount of energy. Less activity also leads to a slower metabolism, which can also lead to weight gain. Since the overall calorie count needs to be less, then concentrating on foods that are nutrient rich becomes more important. Instead of empty calories from sugar and saturated fats, older adults need to gear their diets more towards whole grains, lean meats, colorful vegetables, unsaturated fats, and fluids. The ideal calorie count depends on the individual’s height, weight, and age. Protein needs for older adults can safely be figured at .8 to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of weight.
From the calories and macronutrients, a good diet plan can move to micronutrients. The micronutrients of greatest importance for older adults are calcium and vitamin D for bone health, fiber for digestion health and potassium for regulating blood pressure. There are other micronutrients, which may need special monitoring but a person’s doctor, or nutritionist can help them with those.
Nutritional health can be affected by some medical conditions, which should be addressed when designing a diet plan. Some are mechanical such as poor lost teeth or dentures that fit poorly which can impact the foods an older adult can comfortably eat. Some are biological such as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease which can affect the types of foods consumed and required. In some cases, the cure for the above conditions can affect diet as well. Certain medications can depress or exacerbate appetite or affect the way foods taste making eating a chore. If this is an issue, a talk with the physician about alternatives can be helpful. If there are no alternatives then alternatives in diet might be necessary such as nutritional shakes for supplementation of the diet. In most cases a careful mix of food and supplements can get the nutritional needs met but a talk with a physician or dietitian is recommended.
Other factors that influence diet are less dietary and more societal. Depression, less interest in eating when eating alone, affordability and accessibility of foods due to a lowered income and less mobility. If these factors are influencing diet, this can also be discussed with a nutritionist or physician who might have information on resources to address and alleviate these issues. The important thing is to make sure the older adult has the wherewithal to follow a good nutritional plan. A good nutritional plan can assure the older adults later years are truly their golden years.