Nutrition is important through all stages of life — from childhood through late adulthood. As you age, eating a balanced diet containing a variety of foods remains vital, although aging does change nutritional needs. Often, these needs change for related diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease, all common in older age. Appetite changes and medication usage can also affect your nutrient needs.
It all starts in the mouth. Oral health is an important part of nutritional status. Many older adults have missing teeth or teeth in disrepair. This can lead to decreased intakes because tolerated foods may be limited due to chewing problems. Those who wear dentures should have them checked on a regular basis to assure a proper fit. Dentures that don’t fit well can cause chewing problems or sores in the mouth that may become painful and affect intakes. Anytime a chewing problem exists, swallowing issues may also occur. Regular dental visits can help combat these problems.
Hundreds of medications list dry mouth (xerostomia) as a possible side effect. This combined with decreased taste and reduced saliva production can lead to unpleasant meal times. When eating, be sure to chew foods well and take small sips of water to help prevent possible swallowing problems. Use broths, sauces and juice to keep foods moist during your meal.
Overall, work to increase fluid intakes during the day to help stay hydrated and aid in the chewing, swallowing and digestion of your food.
The aging process also brings changes to the GI tract that affect how vitamins and minerals are digested and absorbed. Less gastric acid is present and the surface area or mucosa may also be reduced. This leads to a body’s decreased ability to absorb vitamins and minerals, especially B12, B6, calcium and zinc. Enzymes that aid in the digestion of natural sugars found in milk, fruit and other carbohydrate-rich foods are also decreased. This can lead to side effects that include bloating, increased gas, cramping and diarrhea.
Eating a variety of foods help provide vitamins and minerals, but if an entire food group is avoided for any reason, a liquid supplement or multi vitamin may be needed. Your doctor can check lab values to make sure your levels are adequate.
Lastly, with age comes the loss of lean body mass with an estimated 2-5 percent reduction in basal metabolic rate per decade. This translates into weight gain if calories aren’t controlled or the amount of exercise decreases. Unfortunately, weight gain late in life is common and can affect mobility and worsen chronic diseases.
It’s never too late to start improving your eating habits. It is suggested that older adults eat a combination of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. They are rich sources of multiple vitamins and minerals. Many of them have a higher water content that helps increase fluid intakes. In addition, they provide fairly good sources of fiber. Two to three servings of low fat dairy products are encouraged. Dairy products provide calcium, vitamin D and phosphorous — all important for bone health. Whole grain breads, cereals, pastas and other grains should provide 50-60 percent of your daily calorie intakes. These items are abundant in B vitamins, folate and many are iron fortified. Choose 5-8 ounces of lean protein every day. Meats are rich in protein, iron, zinc, magnesium and B vitamins, but can also provide high amounts of cholesterol and calories from fat. Meats should be lean, trimmed of visible fat and cooked using a method that allows fat to be drained. Finally, added fat should be limited to 3-5 teaspoons per day.
Eating healthy is important, but being aware of how your body changes as you age is also necessary. Make each bite count toward eating better and living a healthier lifestyle.
Holly Norris is a dietitian at University Hospitals Samaritan Medical Center.