What people put into their bodies affects how their bodies work, move, and react to different situations in life; regardless of their age. Eating a diet that is energy dense and nutritiously adequate can help older adults to maintain their strength and independence and reduce their risk of falling. Poor nutrition can cause health effects such as dizziness, weakness, light-headedness, reduced concentration and headaches; all of which can increase older adult’s risk of falling.
It is important to consider the possible underlying causes of poor nutrition. Many of these causes can be addressed in order to make it easier for older adults to eat a nutritious diet. Underlying causes can include:
- Oral health and dentition problems
- Swallowing difficulties
- Poor appetite
- Difficulties in purchasing and storing food
- Inability to prepare meals
- Social isolation and depression
Calcium and vitamin D are two nutrients which are particularly important for older adults to reduce their falls risk. These nutrients play key roles in maintaining and improving bone and muscle function and strength.
Vitamin D is essential for bone and muscle health. It also has the capacity to improve dynamic balance, proximal muscle strength and help the body to absorb more calcium. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk of falls in older adults. One-third of Australians do not meet their daily-required vitamin D levels for bone health.
The amount of daily sun exposure that individuals require depends on factors such as the individual's skin colour, geographical location and season. For people with moderately fair skin, exposure of the arms (or equivalent) for 6-7 minutes mid-morning and mid-afternoon in summer will maintain adequate vitamin D levels. Dark skinned people will require 3-6 times longer exposure.
Click here for more information about the importance of vitamin D on improving and maintaining bone health in older adults.
Calcium is necessary for the development and maintenance of bones. It forms with other minerals to make the bones hard and strong.
Studies have shown that older people do not have enough calcium in their diet to maintain their bone strength and prevent bone loss, therefore placing people at increased risk of a fracture if they fall.
It is recommended that an adult’s required daily intake (RDI) of calcium is (1000-1300mg, depending on age and sex) is achieved through diet, including ‘calcium rich’ foods. Three serves of dairy foods per day, or calcium-rich non-dairy alternatives are recommended. However, if individual circumstances mean that this is not possible, supplementation may be needed.
Click here for more information about the importance of calcium in improving and maintaining bone health in older adults.
Australian Dietary Guidelines for eating when you’re older
The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide three guidelines for older adults
Older adults should eat nutritious foods and keep physically active to help maintain muscle strength and a healthy weight.
You can use these calculators to estimate the amount of energy and nutrients your body needs as well as the average recommended number of serves.
- Vegetables and legumes/beans
- Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre veggies
- Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives, mostly reduced fat
It's always good to limit saturated fats, added salt, added sugars, alcohol and low fibre choices for good health.
However older people are also more likely to be living with a chronic disease and part of their self management might involve careful attention to choosing foods. Sometimes though, limiting fats, added salt and added sugars can mean a person who is at risk of malnutrition, actually eats too few nutrients and kilojoules and can put themselves at risk. For some people it’s not straight forward and they need to talk to their health professional about the benefits and risks.
Older people can also find that they need to eat more high fibre foods and to drink more water to avoid constipation as bowels tend to slow down with age.
How can I assist older adults to fuel their body?
Encourage older adults to fuel their bodies by:
- Eating regular meals with a variety of foods from all five food groups
- Drinking more water and staying hydrated
- Drinking less alcohol
Useful information to provide older adults about healthy eating:
The Australian Dietary Guidelines are a joint initiative between the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Department of Health and Ageing. They provide recommendations (based on the latest scientific evidence) on how to eat a healthy diet to improve health and reduce the risk of preventable diet-related death, illness, and disability. The guidelines apply to all healthy Australians from the age of six months through to 70 years, as well as individuals with common health conditions such as being overweight. The guidelines do not apply to individuals who need special dietary advice for a medical condition, or to the frail elderly.
The Healthy Eating for Adults: Eat for Health and Wellbeing is a great brochure to provide older adults with information on how to select nutritious foods and appropriate servings for their age.