Senior man drinking milk with fruit

When you were a child, the adults in your life--whether parents, grandparents, or other caregivers--likely took the time to make sure you were getting enough to eat. But now that you are an adult, the tables may have turned.

Do you know if your elderly loved ones are getting their nutritional needs met? Elderly people may have trouble preparing their own meals, or even forget to eat altogether. It's important to learn to recognize the signs that your older family members and friends may not be eating enough, and understand what steps you can take to help.

Seniors' Nutritional Needs
As we get older, our nutritional needs change. To reflect these shifts, Tufts University researchers designed modified nutritional guidelines to correspond with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) recommendations. The "MyPlate for Older Adults" corresponds to the USDA's "MyPlate," the federal government's new primary food group symbol. MyPlate for Older Adults provides information about the specific nutritional needs of seniors to ensure they are eating enough of the right kinds of foods and staying hydrated.

Half of the plate is made up of fruits and vegetables, in a variety of colors, to emphasize the importance of eating multiple servings of produce with dark-colored skin, such as tomatoes, peaches, or berries. The plate also shows images of low-sodium, low-sugar canned fruits and veggies, since those forms are often easier for seniors to prepare.

To help you get a better picture, some of the specific foods illustrated on the MyPlate for Older Adults include:

  • Bright colored vegetables (like broccoli and carrots) and deep colored fruit (like melon and berries)
  • Whole grains such as brown rice, cereals, and whole wheat bread
  • Non-fat and low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt
  • Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, and beans
  • Spices in place of salt
  • Liquids, including water, fat-free milk, and orange juice
  • Liquid vegetable oils that are low in saturated fats

The MyPlate for Older Adults also places a new focus on exercise, showing images of older people walking, doing resistance training, and performing light household chores. Government statistics have shown that elderly obesity rates are rising. In order to help seniors maintain a healthy weight, MyPlate for Older Adults encourages seniors to engage in regular physical activity.

What You Can Do to Help
Sensory and structural changes due to aging--such as changes in smell, taste, or metabolism--can lead older adults to be less interested in food. To help your loved ones meet their nutritional needs, you have a variety of options:

  • According to Colorado State University, loss of visual acuteness can lead to fear of cooking, using a stove, or grocery shopping. Offer to help seniors with shopping and food preparation, keeping in mind guidelines from the modified food pyramid.
  • Changes in smell and taste can make food less appetizing. Encourage older loved ones to experiment with healthy new food flavors. Low-sodium options include seasonings prepared with herbs, like dill or curry, as well as lemon juice.
  • Many older adults experience a decline in thirst as they age. This can be dangerous, since it can lead to dehydration. To help ensure that seniors stay properly hydrated, remind your loved ones to drink a mix of fluids every day. Although water is the most hydrating fluid, juice, milk and other beverages provide hydration too.
  • Food texture can also make a difference, particularly to people with dentures. Assist loved ones with the timing of preparing foods like vegetables to avoid overcooking them. Instead, emphasize the importance of fresh, flavorful foods with a variety of interesting textures. This will help your older family and friends to avoid the boredom of a drab diet.

Put It In Practice: Ensure Your Elder Loved Ones Have A Healthy Diet
It can get harder to eat right as you get older. Seniors can benefit from your guidance in making sure they are eating well-rounded, healthy meals. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that those over age 50 make sure that half of the grains they eat are whole grains, and that they eat many types and colors of fruits and vegetables. They should also eat only small amounts of saturated fats, and eat seafood two times per week. Pay attention to the nutritional needs of your elderly loved ones to help ensure that they maintain a healthy diet.