How to Avoid Malnutrition in Older Adults

Malnutrition in older adults is a serious health concern. That's why it's important to know what they should be eating to avoid this issue.
How to Avoid Malnutrition in Older Adults
Anna Vilarrasa

Written and verified by the nutritionist Anna Vilarrasa.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Malnutrition in older adults can be defined as a condition caused by a lack of nutrients in the body. This condition causes a series of side effects that significantly worsen the affected person’s health.

It’s very important to avoid malnutrition. To do so, older adults need to ensure they are eating an adequate amount of quality nutrients. The first step is to propose a healthy and balanced diet. 

Causes of malnutrition

Malnutrition can show up in adulthood as a consequence of some conditions or situations that may occur during one’s life.

  • Significant loss of senses of smell and taste
  • Decrease in physical activity
  • Taking medications
  • Chronic illnesses or other health problems that cause a lack of appetite
  • Dental problems that prevent or hinder good chewing
  • Decreased appetite

Malnutrition isn’t an inevitable consequence of aging. That’s why it’s important to stay cautious so that you can avoid its onset. 

Consequences of malnutrition in older adults

When your body is malnourished, it’ll undergo a series of changes and you may experience different symptoms. If you don’t address the problem in time, it could lead to serious health problems, such as: 

  • Fatigue
  • Involuntary weight loss
  • Muscular weakness
  • Memory loss
  • Weak immune system
  • Healing problems

Preventing malnutrition in older adults is important in order to ensure a better quality of life. It can also decrease the risk of mortality and morbidity. In recent years, studies have shown the role of micronutrients in promoting health and preventing non-communicable diseases.

This is due to the protective role of vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients play in the fight against cardiovascular problems, hypertension, some cancers, or cognitive degeneration. The risk of suffering from these issues increases with age. That’s why it’s important to help with this protective role by getting enough nutrients from your diet.

An old couple.

Which nutrients are at risk?

As we’ve already seen, some physiological changes that occur over the years can affect the assimilation of some nutrients. In older people, total energy needs decrease and fewer calories are consumed. This is due to a decrease in metabolic rate and physical activity.

This decrease in caloric intake can cause nutrient deficiency. It’s also important to note that, as we get older, the feeling of satiety increases considerably. This can cause even more problems in terms of nutritional deficits. Scientific evidence highlights the importance of nutrients such as:

Also read: What Are the Risk Factors for Osteoporosis?

Dietary recommendations

To prevent malnutrition in older adults, their diet should be based around the following:

Protein in every meal

Distributing protein intake throughout the day is just as important as the total consumption. This is necessary in order to avoid loss of muscle tissue that’s caused by a decrease in physical activity.

  • The best protein sources are fish, eggs or white meat. Also, don’t forget about legumes which are a great source of vegetable protein.

Fresh fruits and vegetables

We need fruits and vegetables because they’re a source of vitamins and minerals. It’s important that older adults eat them every day at meals and for dessert. Citrus fruits, melon, papaya, and kiwi are great sources of vitamin C. You can also adapt the fruit and vegetables’ textures if you have difficulty chewing. In addition, you can opt for ripe and soft fruits.

Some fruits and vegetables.

Nuts everyday

Nuts are an excellent food as they provide us with a good number of nutrients, such as vitamin E, healthy fats, and minerals.

  • Add a handful to vegetable soups, salads, yogurt, or as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack.

Healthy breakfasts

People tend to skip breakfast, even though it can help prevent malnutrition in older adults. You should avoid cookies, croissants, and other types of pastries as much as possible. 

Instead, you can make whole wheat toast with olive oil, tomato, fresh cheese, and a little tuna, or with a nut butter. We also recommend muesli oatmeal with seeds, dates, or dried apricots.

Varied cooking and tasty dishes

It’s important to not forget about the importance of varying your meals. We all know that we eat with our eyes as well, and that we’re more likely to enjoy a dish that’s both appetizing and aesthetically pleasing. Also, it’s important to mention that our senses of taste and smell tend to change as we age, which can affect our desire to eat. 

You can try a variety of different cooking methods for each meal (oven-baked, soups, sautéed, skillet, steamed, etc.). In addition, try seasoning the dishes with a good olive oil, spices and fresh herbs.

A plate of salmon.

Stay hydrated with water

As we mentioned earlier, older adults can lose their appetite as they age, but they can also lose the sensation of being thirsty. This puts them at risk of dehydration.

Because of that, it’s important to ensure older adults are drinking adequate amounts of water per day. Also, keep in mind that while sugary drinks, juices, or alcoholic beverages can be refreshing, they don’t keep us hydrated. 

How to deal with a lack of appetite

Some older people have appetite problems, or they get full too quickly. To prevent malnutrition in older adults, it’s important to keep in mind what they’re eating and how it’s being presented to them. 

It’s important to offer older adults attractive and tasty dishes that will entice their stomachs and make them excited to eat. Also, some dishes can be enriched with foods that will help cover the necessary proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

You can add:

  • Powdered milk to natural yogurt
  • Nuts or dehydrated fruits to yogurts, salads or vegetable soups
  • Hard boiled eggs to vegetable soups
  • A little grated cheese to vegetable soups, salads and pastas

Older adults may also benefit from mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks such as cottage cheese, fresh cheese, dried fruits, or whole wheat bread with olive oil. Keep that in mind!

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Deer R, Volpi E.  Protein intake and muscle fonction in older adults. Current Opinion Clinical Nutrition Metabolic Care. Mayo 2015. 18(3): 248-253.
  • Hossein-nezhad A, Holick M.F. Vitamin D for health: A global perspective. Mayo Clinical Proceedings. Junio 2013. 88(7): 720-755.
  • Wu B., Du Y., Feng Y., Wang Q., et al., Oral administration of vitamin D and importance in prevention of cerebral malaria. Int Immunopharmacol, 2018. 64: 356-363.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.