A non-dietician's guide to senior nutrition

Posted on March 12, 2019
A non-dietician's guide to senior nutrition
8 min read

Everybody knows that it is very important to get a healthy, balanced diet. When somebody is older and perhaps in poor health, this becomes even more vital.

Getting vitamins and minerals in appropriate amounts will help you to feel better. Making sure you have enough water to drink – either on its own or in tea, coffee or juice – is particularly important. A healthy, balanced diet with plenty of hydration to top it up is crucial to maximise an elderly person’s health and wellbeing.

Food is fuel that gets us through the day. But it is also a source of enjoyment that can bring joy to people as they partake in their favourite foods.

Tips on healthy eating for seniors

It’s easy to get into a food rut, cooking and preparing the same foods, day after day, but this will quickly become boring and uninspiring. Variety is the spice of life, so come up with new and varied meals to keep your appetite keen and your meals balanced.

Cookbooks, television cookery programmes and the internet can all be the sources of great new food ideas to keep your meals varied and interesting. Eating a range of different foods will help to ensure that you have a varied intake of different vitamins and minerals. This will help to protect your body from anaemia, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, and even certain forms of cancer.

A balanced diet contains appropriate amounts of the different food groups: carbohydrates (starchy foods like pasta, potatoes, rice and bread), proteins (foods such as meat, fish and pulses), milk and dairy products (foods including milk and cheese), fruits and vegetables (foods that include tomatoes, aubergine, green beans and carrots) and fats and sugars (ingredients such as oil and butter, sugar and honey).

Use this NHS diagram to establish how much of each food should make up your meals. You will notice that fats should make up a very small proportion of your plate, while fruits and vegetables and carbohydrates should make up the majority of what you eat for each meal.

Vitamins and minerals for a healthy diet

Certain vitamins and minerals are particularly important for older people to stay well. These include:

  • Calcium to support your bones and teeth and prevent breakages if you have a fall. It is present in dairy foods and leafy, green vegetables.

  • Protein to build and repair tissues in your body. It is present in meat and fish, as well as vegetarian and vegan alternatives such as tofu, textured vegetable protein (TVP) and Quorn.

  • Vitamin D to support your bone health. It is often fortified, e.g. added to foods such as fortified bread and cereal because it is not naturally found in a lot of foods. You can also get it in oily fish and eggs.

  • Iron to prevent anaemia and to oxygenate the blood. It is found in leafy green vegetables like spinach.

  • B vitamins for energy levels, mood and brain function. They are found in whole grains (e.g. brown rice or whole grain bread), eggs, beans and lentils, seeds and nuts and citrus fruits.

There are also a few foods to avoid having in excess, such as saturated fats (usually animal fats like fatty meats and cheese) and sugary foods and drinks (e.g. Coke, chocolate, cakes) that can have a detrimental effect on your health.

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Food issues affecting older people

As an older person, you may find that there are particular issues around food that did not affect you when you were younger. You may have difficulty chewing certain foods, or you may find that your appetite has reduced, for instance.

Some ways to keep your food intake up when your appetite is low include:

  • Planning your meals in advance. This will help you to draw up the most suitable shopping list as well as save you from having to make decisions every day.

  • Having a handful of really easy-to-prepare meals on a list for days when your energy is low.

  • Eating at regular times in the day. Even if you don’t feel that hungry, knowing that 8am, 1pm and 6pm are the times that you eat your main meals can keep you on track.

  • Keeping the healthy plate of food in your mind when you plan out your meals to make sure that your food intake is balanced and gives you all the nutrients you need.

  • Incorporating light and healthy snacks can help to fill you up and add vitamins and minerals to your daily diet. A small handful of dried fruit and nuts or a piece of fresh fruit can be just the ticket!

The challenges of a healthy senior nutrition

As well as a reduced appetite, older people can experience other issues around food and hydration. If you wear dentures, you may find crunchy or chewy food difficult to manage. If you have dementia, you may forget to drink as much water as you need.

Here are our top tips for challenges older people can face with food and drinks:

1. Loss of appetite

Our sense of taste reduces as we age, so it may be more difficult to get enjoyment from food. At the same time, medication and health conditions can reduce our appetite. You can deal with this problem by:

  • Going for a walk before a meal to boost appetite

  • Getting a medication check from your doctor. It may be that there are alternatives to the ones you take that reduce your appetite.

  • Filling up on proteins and fruits and vegetables. While starchy carbohydrates play an important role in a healthy balanced diet, they can fill you up without providing a wide range of nutrients.

  • Making the food you prepare look great will help to entice you to taste it. Go for bright colours and arrange it nicely on the plate to increase its appeal.

  • Adding flavour to the food you cook by including herbs and spices during food preparation. However, resist the urge to add lots of salt.

  • Making sure there is a variety of flavours and textures on a plate to make it interesting to eat

  • Eating a series of smaller meals rather than three main ones in a day

2. Eating with dentures, a sore mouth or having difficulty chewing and swallowing

Get a Speech and Language Therapist to assess your ability to chew and swallow if you are really finding it difficult, or if you find yourself choking when you eat.

While waiting for that assessment, always cut your food into small pieces (or have somebody do this for you) and eat foods that are easier to eat, such as mashed carrots, tofu, baked potatoes and cottage cheese.

Liquids like milkshakes or fortified milk can help you to get plenty of calcium into your diet to protect your bones and can be easier to swallow than thinner fluids.

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3. Eating alone

Many older people find that they eat meals alone, and it can feel difficult to motivate yourself to prepare food for just one person.

To make meal preparation for one a bit more appealing, make the effort to make your dining room or kitchen look nice, as well as the food you serve. You might want to eat in the garden on a sunny day, put on the radio or TV, eat out or have food delivered from time to time.

You also have options such as Meals on Wheels, which can save you the bother of preparing every meal for yourself. Healthy ready meals from supermarkets can also be an effective option.

4. Eating when feeling confused or upset

It can be very distressing if food becomes a battleground. Try not to argue with people during mealtimes, and serve food that everybody at the table enjoys.

Having company over for food can be a particularly pleasant way to reduce mealtime stress. Avoid adding to confusion by having too many foods available and too much to choose from. Simply serving two or three foods on a plate is preferable to having lots of examples to choose from.

Consider setting up a check board or reward chart so that you can keep track of which meals you have already eaten and which are still to come, if you find that you are forgetful. You can also set up reminders on your phone (or ask somebody to do this for you) if you want a more proactive ‘beep’ when it’s time to lay the table.

Tips on how to stay hydrated for elderly people

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Not drinking enough fluids because of forgetfulness, or because you don’t feel like a glass of water, can cause dehydration in older people. Some changes that the body goes through result in less of a sensation of thirst, while conditions like dementia can mean people simply forget to keep drinking water as well as not feeling the need to.

So, while excess thirst can be a symptom of dehydration in most people, it cannot be relied upon to diagnose the condition in elderly people; nor can it be relied upon to prompt a person to drink.

Here are some suggestions to help people who don’t realise they’re thirsty – or who forget to deal with their thirst – to stay hydrated:

  • Keep a jug of water out all day, with glasses nearby. This can be a visual prompt to drink a glass of water periodically.

  • Make water or fruit juice look as appealing as possible, including ice cubes or slices of fresh lemon.

  • Make or buy ice lollies during warm weather.

  • Avoid excessively sugary drinks.

  • Provide options like milk, Horlicks, decaf coffee, herbal tea or even broth or Bovril drinks to keep things varied. Water is not the only option.

  • Consider investing in a smoothie machine or a juicer to prepare fresh drinks that are chock full of fruits and vegetables and all their associated vitamins and minerals.

  • If necessary, incorporate more fluids into meals, too. Serving things like soup or broth can help to combat dehydration while fruits like watermelon and salad vegetables like cucumber are also full of water.

  • When it’s time to take medication, always take your pills with a full glass of water.

  • Most importantly, have a good supply of your favourite beverages. If you know that peppermint tea, or orange squash, are the ones you like the best, and are willing to drink the most of, always have some in stock.

By taking these simple steps, older people can avoid nutritional deficiencies and dehydration. Regular health checks and blood tests can ensure that there are no ongoing problems, and remaining focused on eating a variety of foods, in a variety of colours, will help to make sure that your daily diet remains interesting as well as balanced.


For more information about care for the elderly, download our Elderly Care Guide for free.

You can also call one of our care advisors on 020 8629 1030 for a free care consultation, or visit our website supercarers.com for more information on how we can help you find the right home care for you.

If you liked this article, you may also like our blog about diabetes in older people.

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