Many seniors struggle with unintentional weight loss. Catching and correcting this problem is crucial, since involuntary weight loss can cause muscle wasting and may increase the risk of disease. Sudden, drastic weight loss can be a sign of a more serious health condition and requires immediate medical attention. It's best for a clinical dietitian or other health care provider to conduct an evaluation to determine whether nutritional supplements are necessary. When they are, it's usually a temporary measure until the underlying cause is resolved.
Causes of Unintentional Weight Loss in the Elderly
Before considering nutritional supplements to boost calorie intake and promote weight gain, try to determine the underlying cause of weight loss. It's best that a health care provider helps with this determination and decides if it can be addressed or treated. Various underlying issues result in unintentional weight loss in seniors. The senses of smell and taste diminish naturally with age, which often leads to a decreased interest in food. Additionally, older people may feel socially withdrawn or depressed -- for which a lack of appetite is a symptom. Improperly fitting dentures and swallowing disorders that make eating a challenge are other culprits that causes a drop in calorie intake, and in turn, a drop in weight. Certain medications play a role in unintentional weight loss in older people as well.
Taking Nutritional Supplements for Weight Gain
Nutritional supplements for older adults come in the form of powders, clear liquids, puddings and shakes. They contain added calories and nutrients to help improve weight and to help prevent nutritional deficiencies. When opting for a liquid nutritional supplement, whether it is a clear liquid or a shake, take it between meals as a form of added calories. Liquid nutritional supplements are not meant for use as a meal replacement, unless a medical condition that prevents chewing is present.
Typically, powders are geared toward increasing protein, which is beneficial if muscle wasting is a problem. The higher ratio of protein in nutritional powders helps preserve lean mass, which naturally decreases with age and is reduced when the person is underweight. Add nutritional powders to moist foods, such as soups, stews, mashed potatoes and puddings, to boost protein content.
Clear liquids are a good option for seniors who don't enjoy a milk drink, since shakes typically contain milk. Clear liquids are fruit flavored and fortified with vitamins and minerals, just as shakes are.
Nutritional puddings offer an additional option to have as a snack or with meals. As with liquids and powders, puddings contain extra vitamins, minerals and calories to correct potential deficiencies and promote weight gain.
Always take nutritional supplements under the guidance of a health care provider.
Nutritional Supplement Beverages
Nutritional drinks in the form of shakes are the most common supplements for seniors who have trouble getting enough calories. They're formulated to help meet nutritional needs. For example, one such shake provides 220 calories, 9 grams of protein and 26 vitamins and minerals per serving. Many brands offer flavored options such as peanut butter or chocolate. Some nutritional drinks, especially flavored varieties, provide a lot of sugar, warns Harvard Health Publications.
In some cases, a homemade, food-based fruit smoothie may provide a better option, according to Harvard Health Publications. Possible protein-rich ingredients include Greek yogurt, milk or soy milk. You can always add a scoop of powdered milk or a protein powder made from whey, soy or hemp to a fruit smoothie to boost the protein level to that typically found in commercial nutritional supplements. Adding nut butters to a fruit smoothie also boosts calories, fat and protein content. Discuss making homemade nutritional drinks with your doctor or a dietitian.
Healthy Eating for Seniors
It's always best to get nutrients from food, so effort is needed to improve appetite. Once the underlying cause is remedied, it's crucial to maintain healthy, balanced eating habits. Inadequate calorie intake is a consistent factor in unintentional weight loss in seniors, according to a study the journal "Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care" published in January 2015. Seniors have different calorie needs than their younger counterparts. A sedentary woman over 50 requires about 1,600 calories, while a sedentary man needs roughly 2,000 to 2,200, according to the National Institutes of Health. Active seniors need even more.
Make fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, lean meats and fish the usual dietary staples. When seniors have trouble getting enough calories, add more calorie-dense, yet still-nutritious foods such as yams, avocado, nut and seed butters and whole-grain rice. Sometimes, a small addition of calorie-concentrated foods such as these can make all the difference.
- American Family Physician: Evaluating and Treating Unintentional Weight Loss in the Elderly
- EatRight Ontario: Healthy Weight Gain for Older Adults
- Harvard Health Publications: Supplemental Nutrition Drinks: Help or Hype?
- Ensure Original: Complete, Balanced Nutrition for Everyday Health
- NIH Senior Health: Eating Well As You Get Older
- Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care: Caloric Supplements for the Elderly
- Australian Prescriber: Malnutrition and Nutritional Supplements