How Older Adults’ Nutritional Needs Change Over Time
By Brad Prescott, Caring.com senior editor
With the average American having a life expectancy of 78 years of age, we’re living longer than ever before. But are older Americans following the right diet to help ensure they live healthier lives into their golden years? Angela Lemond is a registered dietitian and is spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Share with us the role of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in promoting a healthy diet.
Angela Lemond: The Academy is the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. Our overarching goal is to improve the health of people through research, education, and advocacy. Most of the organization is made up of registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) who work on the front lines in the food, nutrition, and wellness arenas.
Older people with diabetes are constantly tempted to “cheat” on their diet. What practical advice do you have for these people when they are tempted to indulge?
AL: First of all, it is important to avoid looking at any individual food as “good” or “bad.” There are only good and bad eating patterns. You can still eat what you enjoy — it’s all about portions and frequency.
What changes can people diagnosed with prediabetes make to their diet to have the biggest impact in delaying or preventing their blood glucose levels from reaching type 2 levels?
AL: The best thing they can do is eat less food at a sitting and, instead, eat more frequently. Meal skipping and then “mega-mealing” really challenge the body. The other big thing is to increase physical activity. Exercise helps pull glucose out of the bloodstream, so it is nature’s best way to balance the body’s processes.
What are the biggest misconceptions among older people regarding the role of diet and nutrition as it relates to heart disease?
AL: Nutrition can have a direct impact on heart disease. One big example is the importance of vitamin B12. In adults over 50, there is a decreased ability to absorb vitamin B12. A person can actually get heart disease with vitamin B12 deficiency. (Vitamin B12 can be found in fortified cereals, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy.) Every stage of life requires a well-rounded diet for optimal health, and there is no exception with older Americans.
In what ways is hydration even more important as people age?
AL: Older people have a decreased thirst sensation, so they can get dehydrated easier. This can lead to several different kidney and urinary tract issues. My advice is not to rely on your thirst as an indicator for fluid needs. Fill a large water container up and make it a goal to drink at least two of them daily, in addition to the water you take in through foods and other beverages.
Many older people encounter dental problems or choose to wear dentures as they age. From a nutrition perspective, how do dental problems or dentures impact an older person’s ability to eat an appropriate, nutritious diet?
AL: Wearing dentures can impact a person’s ability to chew certain foods, while other older adults might have issues swallowing. These are two reasons it is important to get an individual consultation with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), so they can put together a well-balanced diet, with the correct textures, that meets their individual needs.
In terms of diet, what can older people do mitigate age-related muscle loss?
AL: It is vital to take in enough overall calories, including protein. Research suggests that it is important to take in 21 to 28 grams of protein at each meal (or 3 times daily) in order to minimize muscle losses. Calorie needs for older Americans range from 1,600 to 2,800 calories per day based on activity.
Because older people experience age-related muscle loss, how then do they know what their optimal weight should be?
AL: Good question! Body weight is an important measure at any age, but body fat and waist measurements are also good to monitor. When body fat is high, muscle is generally low.
What are you most encouraged by when it comes to the diet trends of older Americas?
AL: Well, I know from my vantage point as a dietitian practitioner, I find that older adults have a tendency to follow nutrition prescriptions better than other ages. The reasons are multifactorial, but one big contributor is that they have more time to spend on making healthy lifestyle changes. People are living longer than ever, and many are realizing that a healthy lifestyle that includes a healthy diet can optimize the quality of their lives.
Flip side, what is most discouraging?
AL: Many injuries and illnesses can be avoided in older age with a healthy diet. Staying active (cardiovascular exercise and weight-bearing activities) and eating a diet high in lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables goes a long way. We need to encourage our older family members to follow a healthy lifestyle so they can be around longer to share more family memories. That’s what it is all about!