01 July 2023

The importance of nutrition for the elderly

8 min read

Part one in our three-part series on nutrition

Keeping ourselves healthy as we grow is the key to extending the quality of our lives. But older Australians are facing barriers that prevent them from getting enough nutrients.

The importance of nutrition for the elderly

As we age, our lifestyle, appetite and nutrition requirements change. Maintaining healthy eating habits supports general health by optimising bone and muscle health, energy levels and regular bowel movements. Good nutrition allows us to have the energy to enjoy the activities we like to do and improve on our quality of life.

As we get older, our ability to meet our nutritional requirements is affected by changes, including medications, changes in appetite, changes in cognition, illness, the ability to chew, swallow food and fluids and the ability to access food outside of ‘standard’ eating times.

What are nutritional requirements needed for the Elderly?

There are key nutritional requirements that are more important for those aged 65 years and over. Ensuring that we meet these requirements will help us have enough of those important vitamins and minerals and other essential nutrients for muscle maintenance, strength and maintaining our quality of life to the fullest.

1. Energy

Energy is also known as the calories or kilojoules that we consume to help fuel us for the day. By having enough energy for the day, it allows us to do the basics like breathing, moving and our favourite activities such as gardening, seeing family and friends, playing bingo, or going for a stroll outside. Good sources of energy include wholegrain breads, cereals, pastas, meats, eggs, poultry, dairy foods and, good fats from avocado, nuts, seeds, and plant oils. Energy is also in everyday ingredients such as butter, cream, oil, yoghurt and milk too.

2. Protein

Protein is the building block for muscles to keep us strong and healthy. Maintaining good muscles helps us move around and minimise the risk of falls. Good sources of protein in food include lean animal meats, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy foods, legumes, and tofu. Dairy is also a great source of protein, including cheese, milk, milk powder and yoghurt.

3. Fat

Healthy fats give energy, provide insulation to protect our organs and help absorb certain micro-nutrients. Great sources of healthy fats include fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, canola oil and peanut butter. Fat also provides energy and include ingredients such as sauces, dressings, butter, cream, oil, yoghurt and milk.

4. Fibre

Fibre is so important for all, through the lifespan and especially important as we get older. When we do not have enough fibre in our diet, we often see constipation which can have so many unfortunate consequences.

There are two types of fibre, insoluble and soluble. Soluble fibre absorbs water and soften the stools to help us pass easier. Insoluble fibre is the undigested parts of vegetables, fruits and grains which sweeps through and cleanse the bowels. Fantastic sources of fibre are in fruits and vegetables, especially those with the skin on. Some examples of fibre in food are in apples, bananas, oranges, dark green leafy vegetables, potato, carrots, pumpkin, celery, wholegrain breads, wholegrain cereal, wholegrain pasta, brown rice, and noodles.

5. Fluid

Older people are more likely to have a reduced sense of thirst or some conditions, such as dementia may lead to forgetting to drink fluids or forgetting how to drink fluids. Overall, this may mean some of us have less fluid intake for the day and we do not meet our fluid requirements. Having enough fluid promotes good kidney function, prevents constipation, quenches thirst and there is less chance of developing urinary tract infections. In serious cases, poor fluid intake can lead to dehydration which can cause confusion and at times hospital admission. Examples of fluids include water, milk, tea, coffee, juice, lemonade, soups, broth, icy poles, ice and ice-cream.

6. Calcium

Calcium helps strengthen the bones to prevent thinner, fragile, and brittle bones. The recommended daily intake of calcium is 1300mg/day for both males and females. Foods with high levels of calcium include milk, fortified milks, cheese, yoghurt, custards, dark green leafy vegetables, and bones in fish.

7. Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps absorb calcium into the bones. Together with calcium, it helps strengthen the bones. Majority of vitamin D comes from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Approximately, 10-15 minutes of sun exposure will achieve 80% of your nutritional requirements. The other 20% of vitamin D comes from food found in fatty fish, liver, eggs, and fortified foods with vitamin D.

8. Vitamin B

Vitamin B6 is important for healthy brains and maintaining a good immune system. Food sources of vitamin B6 include poultry, fish, potatoes, chickpeas, bananas, and fortified cereals.

Vitamin B12 assists with energy production and to produce red blood cells. As we grow older, the acid in our stomach is less efficient in digesting food, and so, vitamin B12 is poorly absorbed into the body. Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal meats which include fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy foods. For those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, consideration of vitamin B12 supplement is highly recommended - discuss with your doctor.

9. Magnesium

Magnesium is a key nutrient to support the regulation of muscle and nerve function. It helps to relieve sore, tight and cramped muscles. Incorporating more foods high in magnesium will allow more flexibility and prevent injury by loosening up tight muscles. These foods include peanut butter, dark green leafy vegetables, soybeans, lentils, almonds, cashews, wholegrain foods, and seeds.

10. Vitamin K

Vitamin K is involved in many processes in the body including production of protein, assisting with blood clots, and improving bone health. The elderly may be less active and some residents are more at rest on the bed or the chair. Inactivity of the muscles can lead to poor strength and increased risk of falls, which may then cause bruises, cuts, and tears. It is essential to have the right amount of vitamin K, as it is the main driver of building certain proteins involved in blood clotting.

Another important role of vitamin K is reducing the likelihood of age-related bone loss. Vitamin K activates key substances in our body that are responsible for building calcium in the bones and teeth. Foods high in vitamin K include green leafy vegetables, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, soybean and vitamin K fortified foods.

Continue reading Part two - What are the common dietary problems in the elderly?