Nutrition for seniors: 6 myths and the healthy habits to choose instead

Nutrition for seniors

There are many reasons why your appetite may decline as you age. But here’s the thing – there are also many ways you can maintain an interest in food in order to stay healthy and nourished.

Health conditions, medications and changes in your digestive system are just some of the reasons why you may not feel like eating as much as you used to. Even still, your nutritional needs are important for maintaining physical and mental health.

When you aren’t meeting your nutritional needs, you are more likely to:

  • Get sick more frequently
  • Take longer to recover from injury and illness 

So if you or someone you know isn’t eating enough, check whether any of the myths below could be part of the problem. We teamed up with nutritionist and author Ngaire Hobbins to set the record straight and help you to feel more empowered at meal times.

1. Your stomach shrinks as you get older and you don’t need to eat as much

This myth is so widely accepted, but it is not the reason why you may not feel hungry very often. In fact, not eating well actually accelerates the ageing process, so you do need to keep eating at regular intervals throughout the day.

Setting the record straight

Your stomach does not shrink as you get older, which means that a loss of appetite is not something to brush off as part of ageing. It is normal to eat less if you aren’t as active as you used to be, but your body still needs foods essential for good health. 

So if you no longer have a healthy appetite for food, speak to your doctor to identify the cause. You will also find some of the most common reasons why seniors may experience a loss of appetite in our Nutrition for Seniors guide, plus ways to keep your appetite stimulated. 

2. You only need to eat when you feel like it and drink water when you’re thirsty

Signals sent between the digestive system and the brain don’t always fire as well as you age. That means your body might not be telling you when it needs more food and water. 

If you rarely feel hungry and only eat when you feel like it, you are likely to be missing out on the nourishment your body needs. And not drinking enough water can result in dehydration, which has a range of detrimental health effects. 

Setting the record straight

Try to eat small meals and drink water regularly throughout the day – even if you don’t always feel like it – and check in with your doctor if you rarely feel like eating and drinking. Your brain uses 20% of your body’s energy supply, so you need to eat a few times a day to keep both your brain and body healthy. 

Drinking enough water will also help to support your bowels, which can slow down as you age.

WAYS TO COMBAT LACK OF APPETITE

WAYS TO COMBAT LACK OF APPETITE

  • Recognise the ‘not hungry' messages as mistakes and try to eat when you know you should
  • Eat by the clock if you need to, having something every two to three hours. Your brain benefits from the repetition and reminders of eating regularly, so make eating an enjoyable and helpful habit.
  • If you have lost weight, you need more meals – e.g. 5 or 6 small meals a day containing high protein, high calorie, nutritious foods
  • If you just can't face food, a high protein supplement drink between meals or instead of meals for a while can give you the nutrients you need until your appetite returns.
  • Be kind to yourself. Use treats to tempt your appetite. A few treats here and there along with more nutritious foods can remind your appetite that food is pleasurable and important.

3. Weight loss is healthy 

In your younger years, you may have been advised that losing a few extra kilos will help you to manage your health. But as you age, your body changes and it needs to be supported in different ways. 

We checked the Australian Dietary Guidelines and found that people over 65 years of age generally experience better health if they have a little extra weight and a slightly higher body mass index. 

Setting the record straight

Weight loss affects you differently as you age. In your later years, it can result in a loss of essential body muscle (rather than fat), which will impact your ability to move around. 

So if you are experiencing a lacklustre appetite or have been losing weight, prioritise protein-rich foods in your diet, as these help to maintain your muscle and provide you with energy. 

4. A low-fat diet with lots of vegetables is the healthiest option

Contrary to deeply entrenched popular opinion, a low-fat diet high in fruit and vegetables is not always the best option for older people. Vegetables are still important, but if your appetite is small, ensure you get protein in first, and then enjoy the vegetables. 

Setting the record straight

You need more protein and fats as you age, because protein keeps your muscles, immune system, organs, brain and other key systems working and renewing continuously. 

Fat is another important source of calories and you may need to eat a bit extra to maintain your weight. Eating foods containing mostly unsaturated fats is best for the heart, body and brain health – these foods include olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and oily fish. 

Wondering how to eat more of these foods? See these recipes for meal ideas developed to meet the nutritional needs of seniors.

Sources of Protein

Sources of Protein:

  • Lean meat, poultry, fish and seafood,
  • Eggs,
  • Dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese,
  • Soy products like tofu,
  • Seeds and nuts,
  • Beans and legumes, such as lentils and chickpea

5. Supplements will help when you’re not hungry

It’s easy to think that a vitamin tablet or supplement will provide some form of nourishment when you simply don’t feel like eating. But many supplements promoted to help with things such as living longer, boosting memory or fighting dementia do not always live up to their claims.

Setting the record straight

Vitamins and supplements should be taken in consultation with medical advice. They should also supplement a healthy diet, because your body works best when it is digesting food and tablets alone cannot give you all the fuel you need to stay healthy. If you really don’t feel hungry, try smoothies or soups instead of a full meal. 

6. You must always eat a proper meal

Eating a large breakfast, lunch and dinner might be the way you have always approached nutrition, so it’s normal to think this is how you need to eat as you age. 

While eating regularly is essential for living well and remaining independent, you can adapt the way you eat so you don’t feel guilty if you can’t get through a big plate of food. 

Setting the record straight

Eating 3 full meals a day can be a struggle if you have a low appetite, or find cooking too difficult or time-consuming. If that’s the case, 5 or 6 small meals throughout the day or well-chosen snacks can be just as beneficial. 

Just make sure the ‘something’ you do eat it is nutritious, remembering to give priority to the protein-rich foods listed above, followed by vegetables, fruits and grains.Eating small frequent meals may also help bring your appetite back and keep it on track.

You could also arrange a hand at home with shopping and cooking to take the effort out of meal preparation. 

Did you find these tips useful? Ngaire Hobbins has more advice on nutrition and eating for brain health in the latest edition of our Nutrition for Seniors guide. Save the digital version for future reference, or contact our Home Instead Senior Care Sunshine Coast office for a physical copy.