An older woman eats blueberriesShare on Pinterest
Experts encourage older adults to eat more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Pamela Joe McFarlane/Getty Images
  • Researchers report the quality of diet for older adults in the United States has declined over the past 2 decades.
  • Some of the reasons include mobility issues, depression, and medications that change the taste of food.
  • Experts recommend that older adults eat a sufficient amount of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats.
  • They also recommend exercise to increase appetite, using herbs and spices to enhance flavors, and eating smaller and more frequent meals.

Healthy eating can lower your risk of chronic disease, improve your quality of life, and extend your life.

However, maintaining a healthy diet can become more difficult as we grow older.

A new study, published in the JAMA Network Open, reports that from 2001 until 2018, the quality of older adults’ dietary quality in the United States deteriorated.

Researchers looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for 10,837 adults ages 65 and older. Their findings included:

  • The portion of older adults with poor diet quality increased from 51 percent to 61 percent.
  • The percentage of older adults with intermediate diet quality decreased from 49 percent to 39 percent.
  • The portion with ideal diet quality remained consistently low
  • The American Heart Association’s healthy diet score decreased by 8 percent.

In comparison, adults more than 20 years old saw generally improved diet quality.

A poor diet is a significant risk factor for chronic disease, disability, and death in the United States. Therefore, it is crucial to identify opportunities for improving the diet of seniors.

The American Heart Association suggests a diet that includes:

  • a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • fat-free and low fat dairy products
  • legumes
  • poultry and lean meats
  • oily fish at least two times a week

“The older the individual, the more likely they are to live alone, or be widowed, or be socially isolated. This makes it more difficult to make and shop for healthier meals. Additionally, fixed incomes and inflation make it harder to be food secure and more likely for them to purchase less healthy (but less expensive) foods,” Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health and author of “Recipe for Survival,” told Healthline.

Other reasons for poor eating habits in older adults include:

  • Mobility issues can make it more challenging to get to the store, around the store, or around the kitchen to make meals. Quick, easy (and often unhealthy) foods substitute for nutritious meals.
  • Depression and grief can decrease the motivation to prepare and eat meals. Older adults often deal with spouses, siblings, and friends dying.
  • Social isolation can decrease enjoyment and motivation to eat. Older adults who find ways to socialize and have consistent companionship have healthier dietary habits.
  • Some medications can change how foods taste or take away appetite. It would be best to talk with your doctor about these side effects.
  • Dental issues can cause problems. Loose teeth and missing teeth might make chewing difficult. Ill-fitting dentures might mean you limit the foods you eat.
  • You might have a diminished sense of taste and smell. Salty, sweet, and savory tastes can decline with age. Many older adults choose to eat more salty and sweet foods to satisfy cravings for those flavors.

“Another contributing factor is that many older adults are not routinely screened for nutrition and may not even be aware that they are at risk — especially if they do not appear overweight. Providers may not be intervening quickly or appropriately,” Tina Sadarangani, PhD, RN, an assistant professor at the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing, told Healthline.

“No matter your age, a good diet is essential,” Michael Garrico, ASCM, NC, a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist, told Healthline. “It offers you energy and can aid with weight management. However, as your body and life change as you get older, so does what you need to stay healthy. You might require fewer calories, but you still must consume enough nutrients.”

There are numerous ways older adults can improve their diet, according to Sadarangani:

  • Get screened by your healthcare professional to understand your nutritional risk.
  • Exercise, even a short walk or chair-based activities using some of the many free YouTube videos. It will stimulate appetite and improve dietary intake.
  • Join your local senior center or phone a friend. Eating is more fun when done with others, and many senior centers offer free or low cost nutritionally balanced meals.
  • Ask for help. This might seem like the most challenging piece of advice, but there are many resources embedded in communities that can help older adults with shopping and cooking.
  • Embrace herbs and spices as a healthy way to add flavor to meals.
  • Eat small, frequent meals. Try to establish a healthy routine around eating.

Many older adults are food insecure. If you are on a fixed or limited budget and find it hard to buy healthy foods, reach out to organizations in your area for food assistance.

You can also apply to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides low-income individuals and families with financial aid to purchase food.