It’s known that eating right can improve and extend lives, but what “eating right” entails isn’t always clear. This is especially true for seniors, whose nutritional needs are different than any other age group.
Here are 10 myths about senior nutrition that are commonly accepted as the truth, but have been disproved. Learn more about these myths so that you and your family can start eating right and improving your health.
10 Senior Nutrition Myths
The right diet and nutritional intake is 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. Unfortunately, many false beliefs about a senior’s nutritional needs exist. Be aware of these myths so that seniors can start eating right or improving their health in other ways.
Here are 10 common but false beliefs about senior nutrition:
Myth #1: It’s Natural For Older People to Lose Their Appetite
It’s true that seniors 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.
Myth #2: Being Moderately Overweight is a Sign of Robust Health
While one highly publicized study suggested that those who are moderately overweight have slightly longer lifespans, other studies, such as 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 risks include type-2 diabetes, heart disease and even Alzheimer’s disease. What’s more, being overweight can limit mobility, and lead to falls and decreased self-esteem.
Myth #3: It Doesn’t Matter Whether an Older Person Eats Alone or With Others – Food is Just Fuel For the Body
Elderly people who live alone and are left to prepare food by themselves, often have bad outcomes. Physical and cognitive problems often cause seniors to become unable to prepare adequately nutritious or filling meals. Eating almost every meal in isolation can also exacerbate loneliness, stress and anxiety. In other words, constantly eating alone can put seniors at risk.
It’s ideal for seniors to, at least some of the time, 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.
Myth #4: As Long as Seniors Follow Healthy Eating Guidelines, They’ll Be Fine
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 and the Food Pyramid, communicate the components of a healthy diet in simple way that anyone can understand. If more people followed these simple guidelines, Americans would be healthier. But most eating guidelines do not provide for the nuances and special nutritional needs of seniors:
Food guidelines may suggest a diet that contains ingredients that interact dangerously with a senior’s medication
Food guidelines may suggest a diet that could worsen common conditions among seniors such as diabetes and heart disease
A senior’s difficulty chewing or swallowing could make adhering to guidelines challenging
Seniors need more of certain vitamins and minerals to maintain optimum health, and this may not be reflected in the guidelines
Government food guidelines should serve as a reference point, but seniors (or their caregivers) must consider the nutritional and culinary implications of both 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.
Myth #5: Senior Communities Have Awful Food
This is a common stereotype regarding senior living communities. It probably originated in the days before assisted living, when only nursing homes were available, which were highly institutionalized and probably did have quite awful food.
A Place for Mom employees have dined at numerous senior communities and have experienced meals ranging from good to excellent, but in my experience, I’ve never been served any meals that I would describe as bad. In fact, there are some extremely talented chefs who work at senior communities, and many communities provide food and a dining experience which could be called “luxury.”
We advise that those who are in the process of selecting a senior 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 a dining experience. Mealtimes are also a good time to visit senior communities because they provide a great opportunity to meet residents.
Myth #6: Seniors Have Slower Metabolisms and Need Fewer Nutrients
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 D and B12.
Myths #7: Seniors With a Weak Appetite can Safely Skip Meals
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.
Myth #8: Seniors Who Aren’t Overweight Can Eat as Much Sugar, Fat and Salt as They Like
Some of us may know someone who is thin, but can eat a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting and double-cheeseburgers like they are going out of style. Although you may be envious of his or her ability to eat junk food without gaining weight, there’s ultimately nothing to be jealous of, as this sort of eating is harmful whether or not it results in weight gain. People who are a “healthy weight” can still develop heart disease from eating too many high-fat foods, and they can still develop diabetes from an improper sugar-heavy diet.
This issue is especially relevant to seniors because difficulty cooking can cause the 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, sugar, or salt, and low in nutrients.
Myth #9: Those Who Have Lived to Advanced Old Age Shouldn’t Concern Themselves with Nutrition Because Their Life is in its Final Phase
This type of attitude about seniors is nihilistic and ageist. It essentially says that elders have nothing to live for, so are therefore free to let themselves go, although one’s lifestyle and nutrition habits have a big influence on lifespan.
It’s never too late for anyone to make efforts to improve their health and diet, which can make one’s quality of life more enjoyable, with better tasting meals and better health.
Myth #10: Malnutrition Doesn’t Occur in Highly Developed Nations like the United States
Malnutrition should be nonexistent in a developed and prosperous nation like the United States, yet in 2012 3.7 million American seniors were diagnosed with malnutrition. How can this be?
Many seniors live on very low incomes, and it’s an understatement to say that paying for housing, medicines, living expenses and food on 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 overweight and malnourished.
It’s obviously best to avoid malnutrition altogether rather than treat it after it has already occurred.
Next Steps for Improved Well-Being
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.