Top 10 myths regarding nutrition for seniors
Dietitian and author Ngaire Hobbins* shuts down some old wives’ tales surrounding the elderly and nutrition.
Research has found that up to 30% of older people living in the community are either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. This is not their fault; it is often a consequence of a lack of awareness that the nutrition needs of seniors are unique and eating patterns must change with age to support physical and mental capacity. It can also be partly a consequence of social isolation and/or reduced physical/cognitive capacity, which is where the invaluable support of home and community care services comes to the fore.
Here are the top 10 myths when it comes to nutrition for the elderly.
Myth 1: The stomach shrinks as people age
Although appetite may change, the stomach doesn’t shrink as people get older. In fact, not eating well enough only accelerates the ageing process.
Myth 2: Weight loss is healthy
Unfortunately, this is not the case for older people. Instead, dieting or unintentional weight loss should be avoided in the later years. In fact, extra padding in later age is beneficial and can support the body and brain of elderly patients in the years ahead.
Myth 3: Elderly people need to eat less as they get older
While metabolism slows and energy output decreases, food and eating remain the key to ageing well. Elderly people may need to eat less of some things and more of others, particularly foods rich in protein, vitamins and minerals.
Myth 4: Older patients only need to eat what they feel like
The ageing process can play tricks on people’s appetites and the triggers that tell them if they are hungry or full. As a result, older people might eat less than their bodies really need. It’s important to realise the vital importance of continuing to eat despite the tricks; this will ensure your elderly patients’ bodies continue to get the energy and nutrients they needs to function. An outright loss of appetite is not normal, and could be symptomatic of an underlying health problem. If older patients are having problems, try to nourish them with small meals regularly throughout the day, even if they don’t always feel like it.
Myth 5: A low-fat diet should be followed
Contrary to deeply entrenched popular opinion, a low-fat diet is not always the best, especially for older people. Fat is an important source of calories and some seniors might need to eat a bit extra to maintain weight. For most, however, eating foods containing mostly unsaturated fats is best for heart, body and brain health. Fats found in foods such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and oily fish are ideal.
Myth 6: Increase vegetable intake
Whilst nutrient-rich vegetables continue to be essential in the diet, protein foods need to be at the centre of an elderly patient’s plate, with the vegetables surrounding it from now on. This is because people need more, not less, protein as they get older. Protein keeps our muscles, our immune system, our body organs and brains working and renewing minute by minute. Vegetables are always important, but if your patient’s appetite is small, ensure they get protein in first, then enjoy the vegetables.
Myth 7: Only drink water when thirsty
If someone feels thirsty they are already dehydrated, and that’s a problem as neither your body nor brain can work at peak capacity in this state. Dehydration can bring on confusion and delirium, hamper kidney function and worsen a multitude of other conditions that commonly effect older people. Seniors tend not to sense thirst as efficiently and are therefore at greater risk of dehydration, making fluid intake an essential element of overall nutrition.
Myth 8: Supplements are sufficient
Of course the elderly can’t live off vitamins and supplement tablets alone. The body works best when it is working — that means digesting food. What’s more, most supplements promoted to help older patients live longer, boost memory and fight off dementia fail to live up to their claims. Many interact with common medications or just don’t work the way they would if you consumed them from food instead. Older patients could spend a lot of money for no gain when they could do better by simply eating.
Myth 9: The elderly must always eat a ‘proper meal’
Making sure older patients eat regularly is essential to helping them live well and remain independent as they age. However, eating three full meals a day can be a struggle if there is a loss of appetite or if they find cooking too difficult or time-consuming. The elderly can opt for prepacked meals, frozen dinners or takeaway foods, but some of these don’t contain the protein or nutrients that are important to support ageing bodies and brains. If three good meals are too much of a challenge, five or six small meals or well-chosen snacks can be just as beneficial.
Myth 10: Malnutrition is a normal part of the ageing process
Malnutrition can affect anyone at any age, and it is is not normal part of the ageing process. However, seniors are at greater risk of malnutrition and it’s important that everyone doesn’t dismiss the warning signs as being a part of ‘old age’.
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