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Nutritional Health for the Elderly

Everyone has heard the phrase “you are what you eat.” What you put into your body has a huge impact on the way you look and feel and your overall health.

This is true no matter what your age, but as we get older proper nutrition becomes even more important. Food gives you the necessary energy and nutrients to stay healthy, and some studies have shown that a balanced diet can reduce risks for heart disease, certain cancers, high blood pressure and other ailments.

However, eating a balanced diet can become more of a challenge because of physiological changes that occur as we age. You may experience a decreased sense of taste or smell, reduced appetite or not enjoy food as much. But there are ways you can adapt and make small changes to get the proper nutrients.

Since March is National Nutrition Month, here is some information on how nutritional health changes as you age and tips for how you can stay healthy:

How Food & Nutrition Changes As We Age

As you get older, your daily calorie requirements begin to decrease and our bodies can’t absorb as many nutrients from food as it used to. 

According to the National Institute on Aging, a woman over 50 who isn’t physically active needs about 1,600 calories a day or at least 1,800 calories daily if she is somewhat active. The daily requirement for men who aren’t physically active is 2,000 calories, while those who are moderately active need between 2,200-2,400 a day. Less physical activity as you age can make you more susceptible to weight gain and certain health conditions, which is why people over 50 need to pay even more attention to their meal portions and food choices. 

Physiological changes that come along with age also make nutritional health more challenging. Some of the patients we see on a regular basis say that the food they normally eat doesn’t taste the same. With age, some people lose their sense of smell and thirst and taste buds also begin to diminish, which can impact the taste of food. If food doesn’t taste as well as it used to, this can affect an elderly person’s appetite. A slower metabolism and less physical activity also can reduce appetite, because the person needs fewer calories. However, sometimes illnesses such as a thyroid disorder, dental problems and gastrointestinal or stomach infections can affect your appetite, so it’s important to discuss any changes you notice with your doctor. 

Some people also develop food intolerances as they get older, such as lactose intolerance or certain food allergies. If you notice a reaction to certain foods you used to enjoy, it’s important to talk to your doctor and undergo tests to find out what foods trigger these reactions so you can avoid them. 

How to Stay Healthy 

As you get older, you must eat a properly balanced diet filled with nutrient dense foods to give you energy. Here are some ways to ensure what you’re eating helps you stay healthy: 

Make Smart Food Choices: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that older adults eat a range of foods from each of the different food groups. Its recommended guidelines include up to 2.5 cups of fruit and 3.5 cups of vegetables a day, along with 5 to 10 ounces of grains and 5 to 7 ounces of protein. Eat fiber-rich foods such as beans, peas, whole-grain breads, cereals, and fruits with the skin intact. People over 50 also should consume plenty of water, milk and juice, fat-free and low-fat dairy products and limit their sodium and sugar intake and red meat consumption. Older adults only need about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt a day, so be careful about adding more salt to your prepared meals and instead opt for foods with a low-sodium label. 

Pay Attention to Portion Size: Even if you’re struggling with a loss of appetite, it’s important not to overload your plate with food. This rule also applies to caregivers who are responsible for providing an elderly loved one with meals every day. What matters is the nutrient density of the food you eat, not necessarily how much of it is on your plate. A good rule of thumb is to fill your plate with a 3-ounce portion of meat that is no bigger than a deck of cards, a half cup of fruit, rice or pasta, and one cup of salad or greens. You also should limit butter or margarine to 1 teaspoon and cheeses to about one ounce per serving, as these foods contain additional calories and fats that may not be the best thing for maintaining a healthy diet.

Plan Meals: It’s important to eat at around the same time every day. Our bodies love routine and when we eat at abnormal times this can cause the body to go into stress mode, causing inflammation and overeating that can lead to weight gain. Set a normal meal time and stick to it as much as possible. 

Take Your Vitamins: The body absorbs fewer nutrients as you age, so it’s important to get vitamins and nutrients from different sources. Food always will be the first and best option for getting much needed nutrients such as vitamin B12, folic acid, calcium, fiber, vitamin D and potassium. Eat unprocessed foods, whole grains, fruits and vegetables to get these nutrients, but you also may consider taking a daily vitamin or dietary supplement to balance your overall diet. People over 50 who have serious challenges with nutrient intake may need supplements, while others in this age group can adjust their diets to close any nutrient gaps. You should talk to your doctor before taking any health supplement. 

Eating healthy is so important as you get older. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats should be a regular part of your diet. If you’re experiencing a loss of appetite or don’t enjoy food as much as you used to, you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible. He or she can suggest the best ways to improve your diet and your overall health.

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