Updated – 9/3/2022
Reviewed By: Deidre Sommerer, LPN, MS, CMC, CDP.

A balanced diet is important at any age, but good nutrition is even more important for seniors. As you get older, your body undergoes many changes that affect your metabolism and ability to maintain normal levels of vitamins and minerals. You also have a higher risk of developing medical conditions that can affect how much you eat or the kinds of foods you can eat.

The Administration for Community Living estimates that 50% of older Americans are malnourished, meaning they lack a sufficient amount of nutrients. Malnutrition increases the risk for other health complications, making it even more important to make good nutrition a priority. Getting enough protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals can help you maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of certain health problems and help you manage any chronic conditions you already have. It can also give you the energy you need to stay active and enjoy as much quality time as possible with the people you love the most.

This guide provides an overview of the most common nutrition issues in seniors and offers tips to help you meet your daily nutritional needs as you age. For seniors interested in following a vegan diet, it also includes tips for getting the right amount of nutrients, even when you don’t consume any animal products. Finally, it contains advice to help seniors avoid foodborne illnesses and find local resources that help seniors access nutritious foods.

Important Nutritional Considerations for Seniors

Eating Well with Dentures

If you wear dentures, you may find it difficult to chew certain foods, causing you to avoid them or eat them sparingly. Researchers from the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Dentistry reviewed the dental records of more than 10,000 patients and compared them with laboratory markers for malnutrition. The review showed that patients experienced a “significant decline in certain nutrition markers” during the two years after they first started wearing dentures. Seniors with dentures may need to take supplements or increase their intake of other nutritious foods to make up for the foods they’ve stopped eating.

Appetite Changes

As you age, it’s normal to have less of an appetite than you did when you were younger. There are a few reasons why this happens. One of those reasons is a reduced sense of taste and smell. Scientists believe that older adults may have fewer taste buds or taste buds that are less sensitive than they used to be. You may also have less saliva, affecting the way foods and beverages taste.

Hormonal changes are also likely to affect your appetite as you get older. For example, your body may not respond the same way to a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK). This hormone is responsible for helping you feel satisfied after you eat a meal. As you get older, the amount of CCK in your blood plasma increases, reducing your food intake. You may also have lower levels of ghrelin, a hormone involved in triggering hunger. When ghrelin levels are low, the stomach doesn’t empty as fast as it once did, leaving you with less of an appetite. 

Several health conditions are also associated with reduced appetite in seniors. These conditions include lower levels of stomach acid, reduced bowel motility, reduced stomach motility, impaired gallbladder contraction and chronic gastritis. Motility refers to the movement of food through your gastrointestinal tract (GI) tract. 

Nutrient Deficiencies

Protein, fat and carbohydrates are known as macronutrients. They’re the nutrients your body needs in large quantities. You also need to consume micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, to maintain your health. Aging is associated with deficiencies of some of the most important micronutrients.

Nutrient

Reasons for Deficiency

Iron

– Lack of variety in diet

Reduced amount of stomach acid

– Reduced kidney function

– Chemotherapy

– Thyroid problems

Calcium

– High sodium intake, which increases excretion of calcium in the urine

– Reduced calcium absorption in the intestine

– Vitamin D3 deficiency; vitamin D helps maintain normal calcium levels

Zinc

– Vegetarian diet

– Use of medications that decrease zinc absorption

– Tube feedings

– Inflammatory bowel diseases

Vitamin D3

– Reduced vitamin D synthesis by the skin

Magnesium

– Reduced magnesium absorption

– Increased excretion of magnesium by the kidneys, especially in seniors who use diuretics

– Reduced intake of magnesium-rich foods

Vitamin B6

– Chronic inflammation

– Poor protein metabolism

Vitamin B9

– Reduced absorption in the intestine due to the use of medications that reduce stomach acid secretion

– Reduced absorption in seniors with atrophic gastritis

Vitamin B12

– Reduced absorption in seniors with intestinal disorders

– Use of medications that interfere with the normal absorption of B12

Fluid Requirements

Drinking enough water is important for adults of every age, but it’s especially important for seniors. As you get older, your sense of thirst lessens, so you may not feel thirsty, even when your body needs more fluid. Your body composition also changes, leaving less water available for critical functions. Due to these factors, older adults have an increased risk of dehydration.

Chronic Health Conditions

The risk of certain health conditions increases with age, creating some unique nutritional challenges for seniors. You may have trouble getting the right amount of nutrients if you have any of the following.

Health Condition

Considerations

Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)

– Often develops due to stroke

– May occur in seniors with esophageal cancer or other problems with the esophagus

– Leads to reduced food intake due to difficulty swallowing

– Seniors with severe dysphagia may require tube feedings, increasing the risk for micronutrient deficiencies

Congestive heart failure

– Seniors with CHF may have to reduce their sodium intake to prevent fluid from building up in the body.

– Seniors with severe CHF may also have to reduce the amount of fluid they drink each day.

End-stage renal disease (kidney failure)

– The kidneys are responsible for maintaining normal levels of fluids and minerals in the body.

– Seniors with ESRD may have to reduce their potassium intake and/or phosphorus intake to prevent these minerals from building up in the bloodstream.

– Seniors with ESRD may have to reduce their protein intake to prevent waste products from accumulating in the bloodstream.

– Seniors with ESRD may have to reduce their sodium intake to prevent fluid buildup.

– Seniors with ESRD may have to reduce their fluid intake. This includes beverages and foods that turn into liquid in the stomach (e.g., ice cream, gelatin).

Cancer

– Nausea, vomiting and other side effects from cancer treatment may make it difficult to eat enough food or drink enough liquid.

Tumors in the digestive tract may cause some seniors to feel full after eating only small amounts of food.

– Some tumors produce cytokines, which can suppress a senior’s appetite.

– Certain types of cancer and cancer treatments affect the sense of taste and smell, making food less appetizing to some seniors.

Diabetes

– Seniors with diabetes may have to limit their carbohydrate intake.

– The American Diabetes Association recommends replacing foods high in saturated fats with foods high in unsaturated fats.

Dementia

– One of the symptoms of dementia is poor appetite, which can make it difficult for some seniors to get enough food.

– Dementia can interfere with a person’s ability to communicate, making it difficult to express hunger or thirst.

– Medications used to treat dementia may cause loss of appetite.

– Seniors with dementia may have poor coordination, making it difficult to use eating utensils.

– Dementia may alter a person’s sense of smell or taste, making food less appetizing.

Alcohol use disorder

– Alcohol damages stomach cells that are involved in nutrient absorption, which may lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

– As lung function worsens, the lungs get larger, causing the diaphragm to push against the stomach. This can cause a senior with COPD to feel full quickly or to have a reduced appetite.

– Seniors with COPD may chew and swallow their food too quickly, slowing digestion and increasing the risk of choking.

Medication Use

Type of Medication

Effects on Nutrition

Antidepressants

Antidepressant use has been associated with reduced calcium and vitamin D levels.

Bronchodilators

The use of bronchodilators may lead to reduced levels of calcium and vitamin D in the body.

Corticosteroids

Seniors taking corticosteroids may have lower levels of calcium, vitamin D, potassium and chromium.

Hypoglycemics 

Use of hypoglycemics has been associated with lower levels of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12.

Diuretics

The use of diuretics may affect the amount of calcium, magnesium, thiamine, zinc, potassium or folate in the bloodstream. 

The effect of a diuretic on nutrient levels depends on whether it’s a loop diuretic or a thiazide diuretic. For example, calcium levels decrease with loop diuretics and increase with thiazide diuretics.

Proton pump inhibitors

PPIs work to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) by reducing the amount of acid produced in your stomach. Because stomach acid is needed for nutrient absorption, chronic PPI use may lead to lower levels of certain nutrients.

PPI use is associated with a decrease in iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin C and vitamin B12.

Social Isolation

Seniors who live alone and don’t have frequent visitors may feel isolated from others. Not only does this have emotional consequences, but it also increases the risk of malnutrition. If you live alone and don’t have someone to help you shop for groceries or prepare meals, you may turn to convenience foods or eat much less than you need to satisfy your nutritional needs.

Nutrition Tips for Seniors

Even though it’s a little more difficult to satisfy your nutritional needs as you age, it’s not impossible. It takes a little bit of planning and careful attention to nutrition labels, but you can continue enjoying delicious, well-balanced meals and snacks that help you stay as healthy as possible. Follow these tips to make it a little easier.

Eat a Variety of Foods

If you only eat a few foods, you could miss out on important nutrients you need to avoid the symptoms caused by nutrient deficiencies and maintain your health. To reduce the risk of nutrition problems, follow an eating plan that includes as many foods as you can tolerate. A balanced diet typically includes the following, although you’ll want to consult your doctor or a registered dietitian if you have any chronic health conditions. You may need to avoid some foods or eat certain foods in moderation to keep your condition under control.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fresh fruits and vegetables add fresh flavors and plenty of colors to your plate. If possible, aim to eat produce from every color of the rainbow. The color of a vegetable or piece of fruit provides important clues as to what kind of nutrients it contains. Here’s what you should know about the color of your produce.

Color

Nutritional Content

Examples

Red

– Vitamin A

– Vitamin C

– Antioxidants

– Potassium

– Cherries

– Strawberries

– Tomatoes

– Watermelon

Orange/Yellow

– Vitamin A

– Vitamin C

– Potassium

– Yellow squash

– Yellow or orange bell peppers

– Pumpkin

– Sweet potatoes

– Carrots

– Pineapple

Green

– Vitamin K

– Potassium

– Spinach

– Kale

– Cucumbers

– Asparagus

Blue/Purple

– Vitamin K

– Manganese

– Potassium

– Vitamin C

– Eggplant

– Blueberries

– Purple grapes

– Raisins

Whole Grains

A whole-grain consists of three layers: germ, endosperm and bran. Germ is the core of the grain; it contains healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins and other nutrients. The middle layer is called the endosperm. It’s made up of starchy carbohydrates and has some vitamins and protein in it. The outer layer, bran, is rich in fiber, minerals and B vitamins. When manufacturers refine grains to make a variety of food products, they strip each one, leaving only the endosperm behind. This eliminates the germ and bran, removing beneficial nutrients from grain-based foods. When possible, choose foods made with whole grains to ensure you get as many nutrients as possible from your diet.

Low-Fat Dairy Products

Dairy products are a good source of calcium, but if they’re made with whole milk, they can add more calories to your diet than you need. You can still enjoy the benefits of dairy if you look for low-fat products, such as low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese and skim or 1% milk.

Proteins

When many people think of protein, they think of meat and fish. While it’s true that chicken, beef, pork and fish contain plenty of protein, you can also increase your protein intake by eating certain plant-based foods. These foods include lentils, black beans, kidney beans, nuts and seeds. Low-fat dairy products and tofu are also good sources of protein.

Plant-Based Oils

Many plant-based oils contain less saturated fat than butter, margarine, shortening and other solid fats. If you need to cook with oil, look for an oil made with corn, olives, canola, peanuts, sunflower seeds or soybeans. Avoid coconut oil and palm oil. Even though these oils come from plant sources, they still have high amounts of saturated fat.

Choose Whole Foods When Possible

When foods are processed, they lose some of their nutritional value. For example, canned peaches have had their skins removed, reducing their fiber and antioxidant content. To get the full nutritional benefit of your favorite foods, choose whole versions whenever possible.

Keep Track of Your Fluid Intake

As noted earlier, your sense of thirst declines with age, so it’s important to keep track of how much you’re drinking throughout the day. If you have trouble getting enough water, consider filling a bottle at the beginning of the day and drinking some of it every time you perform a certain action. For example, you may want to drink a few ounces every time you have a meal or snack. You can also make water a little more palatable by adding cucumber slices, blueberries or strawberry slices.

Experiment with Herbs and Spices

If your sense of taste diminishes, don’t reach for the salt shaker. Although you need sodium to survive, too much of it can increase your blood pressure, cause fluid retention and lead to other health problems. Instead of adding extra salt to your food, try using herbs and spices to add flavor. Basil, oregano, chili powder, rosemary and other seasonings make food more flavorful without increasing your sodium intake.

Watch Your Sugar Consumption

Sugar has little nutritional value and is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. To avoid empty calories and reduce your risk of heart problems, limit your intake of added sugar as much as possible. High levels of added sugar are often found in fruit drinks, soft drinks, baked goods, candy and highly processed foods. You should also check the labels on your favorite soups, breads and condiments to determine if they’re high in sugar.

Limit Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are the unhealthy fats that can contribute to disease. Too much saturated fat is associated with weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease, making it important to limit your intake of saturated fats as much as possible. You should get no more than 10% of your calories from these fats each day. Saturated fats are found in fried foods, baked goods, dairy products made with whole milk, palm oil, coconut oil and processed meats. Replace these items with foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Avocados, nuts and seeds are just some of the healthier options.

Vegan Nutrition Tips for Seniors

Whether you’re a lifelong vegan or you’re interested in starting a vegan diet to take advantage of its health benefits, there are a few important factors to consider. Follow these tips to make sure you get enough nutrients, even if you remove all animal products from your eating plan.

Get Plenty of Protein

If you omit animal products from your diet, you need to make an effort to get enough protein from plant-based foods. The good news is that beans, legumes, chia seeds, nuts and pumpkin seeds are all known for their protein content. Incorporate these foods into salads, main dishes and desserts to increase your protein intake. You can also get protein from products made with soy milk or almond milk.

Limit Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates are easy to digest, but they also contain fewer nutrients than minimally processed foods. A well-balanced vegan diet should limit refined carbs and emphasize whole grains, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, beans and legumes. Limit your intake of pastries, soft drinks, white bread and other highly processed foods.

Ask Your Doctor About Supplements

If you exclude a lot of foods from your diet, you have fewer opportunities to get the nutrients you need. Talk with your doctor about whether you need to take supplements to prevent nutrient deficiencies. For vegans, it’s common to need calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iron.

Look for Iron-Rich Foods

Red meat, seafood, pork and poultry are among the best sources of iron available, so if you eliminate these foods from your diet, you need to get your iron from other foods. Try eating more beans, spinach, peas, raisins and apricots to get the iron you need. You can also increase iron absorption by enjoying foods high in vitamin C. Leafy greens, citrus fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes and broccoli are all good sources of this vitamin.

Shop for Fortified Foods

To prevent nutritional deficiencies, some manufacturers fortify their products with vitamins and minerals, making it easier for shoppers to get the right amount of nutrients each day. If you’re struggling to get enough nutrition from your vegan diet, look for fortified plant-based products when possible. These products include cereals, breads, fruit juices and soy milk.

Special Diets and Dietary Options in Senior Living Communities

If you decide to move to assisted living or another type of senior living community, it’s important to choose a residence that has plenty of options when it comes to nutrition. Depending on the type of community you choose, you may have access to the following:

  • Culinary events: Many communities offer special culinary events for residents, increasing access to a wide variety of foods. For example, an assisted living center may have special menus for holidays or themed dinners on special occasions.
  • Cooking classes: Your senior living community may offer cooking classes, giving you an opportunity to learn healthier cooking techniques or find out how to get more vitamins and minerals in your diet.
  • Group meals: Most senior living communities offer group meals, reducing the risk of the social isolation that can make it difficult for seniors to maintain healthy eating habits.
  • Multiple dining options: Large communities may offer multiple dining options, such as casual dining in one area and fine dining in another. You may even be able to access unlimited snacks and beverages.
  • Trips to local restaurants: To help residents stay active, some senior living communities provide transportation to local restaurants. These trips are ideal for discovering new cuisines and eating foods that aren’t a normal part of your diet.
  • Vegetarian/vegan options: A few senior living communities have special dietary programs for residents who adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
  • Feeding assistance: If you have swallowing difficulties or another medical condition that makes it difficult to eat, you may be able to find a senior living community that has personal care aides available to provide feeding assistance. This assistance may take the form of cutting food into small bites, ensuring you’re positioned safely and thickening liquids to make them easier to swallow.

Food Safety for Seniors

As you age, it becomes more difficult to fight off infections, making food safety an important consideration. The infographic below explains some of the steps you can take to avoid foodborne illnesses, such as listeriosis and food poisoning caused by E. coli.


Food Safety for Seniors Infographic

Accessing Healthy Foods: A State-by-State Guide to Resources for Seniors

Food costs are rising, making it difficult for some seniors to get enough food. If you’re on a strict budget and need help accessing nutritious foods, consult the food resource directory for your state.

Alabama Indiana Nebraska Rhode Island
Alaska Iowa Nevada South Carolina
Arizona Kansas New Hampshire South Dakota
Arkansas Kentucky New Jersey Tennessee
California Louisiana New Mexico Texas
Colorado Maine New York Utah
Connecticut Maryland North Carolina Vermont
Delaware Massachusetts North Dakota Virginia
Florida Michigan Ohio Washington
Georgia Minnesota Oklahoma West Virginia
Hawaii Mississippi Oregon Wisconsin
Idaho Missouri Pennsylvania Wyoming
Illinois Montana    

Resources To Help Seniors Access Healthy Foods in California

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Resources To Help Seniors Access Healthy Foods in Texas

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Resources To Help Seniors Access Healthy Foods in Florida

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Resources To Help Seniors Access Healthy Foods in Alaska

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