Good nutrition and a healthy body weight are critical to maintaining your well-being and independence as you age. We know that obesity or a high body mass index (BMI) is a leading risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and other health conditions, but a low BMI in seniors can also increase your risk of falls and fractures, weaken your immune system and limit your ability to do day-to-day tasks.
Weight loss can be a normal part of aging due to changes in body mass and muscle, slowing metabolism, a declining sense of taste and smell and an increase in the hormone that causes the feeling of being full. Other factors like swallowing or dental issues, decreased physical activity, isolation and side effects from certain medications can also impact appetite causing weight loss in some seniors. Any unexplained weight changes should always be evaluated by a health professional as they can signal underlying or serious health issues, but if your doctor has ruled out physical concerns, diet and lifestyle changes can help you sustain a healthy weight.
If you or a loved one are losing weight without wanting to, here are some ways to help you improve your diet and get the energy and nutrients that you need to age well:
- Eat the right foods. Consuming more calories is an obvious way to gain weight but choosing fast food or sugary treats in excess isn’t the best way to do it. Instead include nutrient-dense and protein-rich foods at every meal that have healthy fats, whole grains and are low in sugar. Nuts, avocados, beans, eggs, cottage cheese, fish, chicken and yogurt will all help you gain weight without negatively impacting your overall health. Also try adding calories to your favorite dishes by drizzling oil, sprinkling grated cheese, adding butter and substituting any dairy products with full-fat options.
- Try smaller meals and extra snacks. If you’ve noticed that your appetite has changed and you just aren’t able to eat as much food as you used to, switch to smaller meals and more regular snacks rather than three big meals a day. Keep a supply of healthy snacks on hand like dried fruit, nuts, low-sugar granola bars and chopped fruits and vegetables so you can snack more easily. Also avoid drinking a lot of fluids during meals to leave room for the nutrient-dense food that your body needs.
- Make some adjustments. Dentures or missing teeth can make it difficult to enjoy the meals that you love and can create aversions to certain foods. To enjoy the tastes you like without the chewing issues, consider pureeing food in a food processor, cooking vegetables and meat a little longer and enjoying softer foods like eggs, smoothies, yogurt and meat loaf. If your sense of smell and taste has declined, either with age or because of a medication, add extra flavor through spices and herbs other than salt.
- Up your exercise. The more active you are the more hungry you will likely feel. Physical activity will also help you to stay healthy, mobile and independent. Just make sure that you check with your doctor before starting any new exercise plan, especially if you have a low BMI or any mobility challenges.
- Add supplements. Gaining weight can be especially difficult if you have a poor appetite or limitations that can make it hard to eat. If you’ve lost too much weight, your doctor or dietitian may recommend a nutritional powder or shake with added calories, vitamins and minerals. These supplements should be ideally used as a snack between meals and not as a meal replacement, leaving room for solid food at mealtimes.
- Accept help. Seniors often experience weight loss because of cognitive or mobility challenges that can make cooking difficult. Those who live alone also may struggle to find the motivation to make healthy meals. If you think your weight loss may be tied to these concerns, you could benefit from personal support services and may even qualify for meal delivery through community programs.
Maintaining a healthy body weight is more important than ever during your senior years. A dietitian or personal support worker at VHA Home HealthCare may be able to help you create a meal plan based on your specific needs or with light meal preparation. Contact VHA’s Private Services team at 416-489-2500 ext. 4649 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on our services. You may even have coverage for these services through an extended health benefit plan.