Last Updated: August 5, 2019
It’s known that eating right can extend your life, but what “eating right” entails isn’t always clear. This is especially true for our elders, whose nutritional needs are very different than any other age group.
Here are 10 senior nutrition myths that are commonly accepted as truth, but have been disproved. Learn more about these myths so that you and your parents or senior loved ones can start eating right and improving your family’s health.
The right diet and nutritional intake are arguably more important for seniors than for any other age group. Seniors have unique nutritional needs that can only be addressed when they are understood.
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Unfortunately, many false beliefs about a senior’s nutritional needs exist.
Stay aware of these 10 senior nutrition myths so that you can help the seniors in your life begin eating right and improving their health:
Eating guidelines provided by nutrition experts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are based on decades of research into health. Educational tools such as MyPlate communicate the components of a healthy diet in a simple way that anyone can understand. Unfortunately, most eating guidelines do not provide for the nuances and special nutritional needs of seniors:
Government food guidelines should serve as a reference point, but seniors must consider the nutritional implications of their medicines and any health problems that can be influenced by diet. Seniors who are dealing with food-drug interactions or related problems should speak with their physician about creating personalized guidelines.
While one highly publicized study suggested that those who are moderately overweight have slightly longer lifespans, other studies, such as this one at Oxford University, associated being moderately overweight with a decreased lifespan. The overweight, or obese, are said to experience lifespans 10 years less than average according to the Oxford study.
An association between being overweight and decreased lifespan is a natural conclusion because there are numerous documented risks to being overweight, such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and heart disease. What’s more, being overweight can limit mobility, leading to falls.
Elderly people who live alone and are left to prepare food by themselves often have bad outcomes. Cognitive and physical problems often cause seniors to become unable to prepare adequately nutritious or filling meals. Eating almost every meal in isolation can also exacerbate anxiety, loneliness, and stress. In other words, constantly eating alone can put seniors at risk.
It’s ideal for seniors, at least some of the time, to eat with others. Seniors living alone can visit senior centers where meals are available along with activities and company from people in their own generation. Senior communities are also a good solution for seniors unable to prepare meals. Common dining rooms and careful attention to nutrition is one of the primary benefits of living at a senior community, and many seniors experience dramatic health improvements when they move to a senior community for the simple reason that they are eating well again for the first time in years.
Seniors indeed need less food than younger adults because of metabolic changes and decreased energy output, but an outright loss of appetite is not normal and could be a sign of serious health problem.
What’s more, simple causes such as a decreased sense of taste or dental problems can lead to seniors eating less and make it appear as though their appetite has decreased when it hasn’t. Seniors should weigh themselves (or be weighed by their caregivers) periodically to look for changes. Any sudden weight loss should be seen as a red flag and warrants a visit to the doctor.
Malnutrition should be nonexistent in a developed and prosperous nation like the United States, yet many seniors live on very low incomes, and it’s an understatement to say that paying for food, housing, living expenses and medicine with only $600 a month is not easy.
Unfortunately, the most affordable foods are also some of the most unhealthy, so poverty can drive malnutrition. A diet that is rich in calories but bereft of nutrients will cause one to simultaneously gain weight and develop deficiency diseases (illnesses caused by lack of vitamins). This results in a bizarre phenomenon unique to developed nations, which is the presence of seniors (and sometimes adults in other age groups) who are simultaneously malnourished and overweight.
This is a common stereotype regarding senior living communities, but A Place for Mom employees often dine at senior living communities and experience meals ranging from good to excellent. In fact, some extremely talented chefs work at senior living communities, and many communities provide food and dining experiences which could be called “luxury.”
We advise that those who are in the process of selecting a senior living community for themselves or a loved one, experience at least one meal at each community they are considering. It’s important to taste the food and be there in person to feel out the dining experience. Mealtimes are also a good time to visit senior living communities because they provide a great opportunity to meet residents.
People who are a healthy weight can still develop conditions like diabetes and heart disease from eating too many high-fat and sugar foods.
This issue is especially relevant to seniors because difficulty cooking can cause a senior to adopt a diet where the main staple is a pre-packaged meal or an unhealthy indulgence of a particular food group. Even seniors who are attempting to gain weight should eat a balanced diet rather than fill themselves with foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar or low in nutrients.
There are numerous drawbacks to skipping meals. For one, it can cause our body to crave food to such an extent that at the next meal we overindulge in the extreme, which is not healthy.
On the other hand, and somewhat paradoxically, skipping meals can further decrease a senior’s appetite. Another major risk of skipping meals is that it can wreak havoc on blood sugar levels, which has numerous negative health implications.
While seniors may need slightly fewer calories and food-bulk than younger adults, they need just as many nutrients, if not more. One reason is that as we age, our ability to absorb nutrients decreases.
Specifically, physicians recommend that older adults increase their intake of calcium, as well as vitamins B12 and D.
It’s never too late for anyone to make efforts to improve their diet and health, which can make one’s quality of life more enjoyable, with better health and better-tasting meals.
If you have held any of these myths as truths, don’t be afraid to reassess your beliefs.
If you have any senior nutrition issues that you are unsure of, browse our senior nutrition resources, talk to your loved one’s physician or your own, and make necessary adjustments in you or your loved one’s diet as indicated by your better understanding of these issues.
What senior nutrition myths have you heard? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.