Expert Q&A

Nutrition requirements for seniors

My parents don't eat very much. How can they stay healthy?

Many Americans these days are surviving into their 90s and centenarians are increasingly common. The older we become, the less food we need. For each decade we age, we need 10% fewer calories than the decade before. One reason people tend to gain weight as they move into their 30s is they continue to eat like they were in their 20s so they add 10% more weight. 

How much should an elderly person eat?

As we move into our 70s and beyond, we need about half as much food as we did at 25. Appetites tend to diminish as we age, as do our senses of taste and smell. On the other hand, we still need vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. Eating so little food, it is difficult to get the minimum nutrition needed for good health. If an older person is overweight, it is a greater challenge to eat properly and lose (or at least not gain) weight. If your parents are in this group, it can be difficult to be assured they are eating properly. 

What should an elderly person eat?

The basics are the same for older adults—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and good proteins such as lean meat and fish or legumes. It is not necessary to include all these foods in their daily meals because it will be too much food. However, working with your parents to develop a week’s menu that includes all these different foods will go a long way to helping them meet their nutritional needs. Personal preferences can be accommodated. Their physician may be able to refer you to a nutritionist for guidance in menu planning. 

For those who can’t (or won’t) eat properly, liquid nutritional supplements are available in grocery stores, pharmacies and elsewhere. These supplements have balanced nutrition and can provide vital nutrients and calories when regular food consumption is inadequate. For older people who can not chew properly, supplements may be the only option.

For more information on diet and nutrition as we age see the following articles from TheDietChannel: Nutrition Advice for the Elderly and Why Nutrition is Important for Seniors.

John Messmer, MD
Contributing Expert

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