Choosing nutritious, energizing carbohydrates and other foods can help older adults such as seniors and the elderly maintain good energy levels and overall health throughout life. Though individual nutrition and energy needs differ, there are some universal changes that take place in the aging body that can lead to an increased demand for certain nutrients in the diet.
"Adults tend to need fewer calories as they age, because they are not as physically active as they once were and their metabolic rates slow down," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. "Nevertheless, their bodies still require the same or higher levels of nutrients for optimal health outcomes."
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Tufts has published a modified nutritional pyramid for older adults that emphasizes nutrient-dense foods for energy, including whole grains, high-protein lean meats, colorful fruits and vegetables and healthy fats.
For seniors and the elderly, specific calorie needs vary, depending on height, weight, age, activity level and more. Other issues, too, influence older adults' diet, energy and nutrient needs. Keep reading to learn more about how to maintain good nutrition as you age.
What Is "Elderly"?
Individual definitions of age-related terms such as "older adults," "seniors" and "the elderly" are highly changeable — especially when the candles on our own birthday cakes become more numerous. Even the medical community lacks consensus: A study published in the October-December 2014 issue of the journal Pharmacy Practice (Granada), for example, found that only three out of 20 major clinical organizations in Australia defined "elderly" by chronological age. The National Stroke Foundation and the Australasian Society for Bipolar and Depressive Disorders both defined it as age 65 or over; the Australian Cancer Network defined it as age 75 and up. In the U.S., "The Older Americans Act provides services to people as young as 55 years old," observed WomensLaw.org in August 2019. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an 'older adult' as someone who is at least 60 years old ... [and] most states commonly use 65 years of age as the cut-off."
Fruits and vegetables are full of nutrients and provide plenty of carbohydrates, your body's main dietary source of energy. Tufts University recommends that seniors emphasize bright-colored vegetables, like broccoli and carrots, and deep-colored fruits, such as melon and berries, for optimum carb and nutrient intake. Choose whole fruits over juices and sweetened canned fruits, which can cause blood sugar to spike.
Like fruits and vegetables, whole grains provide valuable amounts of complex carbohydrates. "Whole grains offer a 'complete package; of health benefits, unlike refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process," explains the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). "Eating whole instead of refined grains substantially lowers total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels." Studies have linked eating whole grains with heart health and a lower diabetes risk.
Unprocessed 100 percent whole grains are the best choice, per Harvard; these include quinoa, millet, oats, spelt, wild rice, wheat berries, barley, corn and buckwheat, among others. Consuming three or more 1-ounce servings of whole grains per day can lower seniors' risk for chronic diseases. Doing so may also enhance weight control and longevity.
As a June 20, 2019 blog from Harvard Health points out, "Healthy fats ... can serve as a source of concentrated, healthy calories. Healthy fats include olive oil, canola oil, peanuts and other nuts, peanut butter, avocado and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel."
The oil in cold-water fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids — healthy fats you must obtain from food. Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids are associated with improved memory, brain function and mood, all of which correlate to positive energy levels, according to a study published in the August 2020 issue of Nutrients. For added wellness benefits, grill, bake, broil or poach fish instead of frying it.
A study published online in February 2019 by the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that "dietary protein intakes were significantly lower in older age groups, with up to 46 percent of the oldest adults not meeting the protein intake recommendation" of at least 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Tufts recommends enjoying a variety of protein sources, including poultry, fish, lean meat, beans and nuts to ensure older adults' protein needs are covered; active seniors may need more.
Vitamins and Minerals
Calcium and Vitamin B12
"Vitamins and minerals are two of the main types of nutrients that your body needs to survive and stay healthy," writes the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which considers those aged 51 and over to be "older adults." All nutrients are necessary, but the NIA identifies calcium and vitamin B12 as two that are especially key for seniors.
"Calcium is a mineral that is important for strong bones and teeth, so there are special recommendations for older people who are at risk for bone loss," they explain. Good sources include dairy products, soybeans, canned sardines with bones and dark-green leafy veggies.
Vitamin B12, by contrast, "is needed to form red blood cells and DNA," says the HSPH. "It is also a key player in the function and development of brain and nerve cells." Food sources of this important nutrient include liver, eggs, fish, shellfish, poultry and dairy products.
But as the NIA explains, "Some people over age 50 have trouble absorbing the vitamin B12 found naturally in foods. They may need to take vitamin B12 supplements and eat foods fortified with this vitamin."
There are many health and societal issues that can affect older adults' nutrition, and they vary from person to person.
Medical Conditions Affecting Nutrition
As the National Cancer Institute notes, "advancing age is the most important risk factor for cancer overall." The same is true for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses and medical conditions — each of which influences older adults' nutrient needs and food intake. Dental health can have a negative impact on nutrition as well, since poorly fitting dentures or missing teeth can result in an inability to chew some foods.
Additionally, many medications interfere with appetite and/or mouth taste, making adequate consumption of nutritious foods a challenge for those taking them. The Cleveland Clinic's list of medications that can cause a loss of appetite includes antibiotics, chemotherapy and opioids, among others.
If proper nutrition is a concern, ask your doctor about medication alternatives and meal supplements such as vitamin-enriched or high-calorie nutritional shakes. Often, you can meet your nutritional needs through a combination of diet and supplementation, but be sure to consult your physician or a registered dietitian for guidance before trying it on your own.
Solitary living, meal accessibility and the cost of healthy foods can all become problematic for seniors. Aging adults may have lost the ability to drive to the grocery store, be living in reduced financial circumstances, or lack the motivation to cook for just one person. The Older Americans Act (OAA) was passed in 1965 in response to these types of concerns.
As described by the Administration for Community Living, the OAA is "a major vehicle for the organization and delivery of social and nutrition services to [older adults]," with a focus on "evidence-based health promotion and disease prevention." Among many other services, it funds local agencies that provide meals to older Americans, such as the Meals on Wheels program and congregate meal sites. If you would like help getting your daily nutrition needs met, contact your local Meals on Wheels office to see if you qualify for assistance.
- Tufts University: Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults
- Linus Pauling Institute: Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
- Tufts University: "Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging — Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc"
- Tufts University: "MyPlate for Older Adults"
- Administration for Community Living: "Older Americans Act"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Loss of Appetite"
- National Cancer Institute: "Age and Cancer Risk"
- Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging: "Low Dietary Protein Intakes and Associated Dietary Patterns and Functional Limitations in an Aging Population: A NHANES Analysis"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "The Nutrition Source — Whole Grains"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Healthy Eating for Older Adults"
- Nutrients: "The Importance of Marine Omega-3s for Brain Development and the Prevention and Treatment of Behavior, Mood, and Other Brain Disorders"
- National Institute on Aging: "Vitamins and Minerals for Older Adults"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "The Nutrition Source — Vitamin B12"
- Pharmacy Practice: "Defining ‘Elderly’ in Clinical Practice Guidelines for Pharmacotherapy"
- WomensLaw.org: "Who Is Considered 'Elderly' or an 'Older Adult?'"
- Tufts University: Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults