If you’re in your 60s, 70s or older, you may have experienced a decline in appetite. You might feel less hungry and be unable to eat as much food as you did when younger.
Many older adults experience a gradual decrease in appetite which, most often, is considered a normal part of aging.
Eating smaller meals, though, can make it challenging to get the proper nutrition your body requires.
While adults generally need fewer calories when older (due to less physical activity and loss of lean muscle), that’s not the case for nutrients.
Nutrient requirements remain the same, and in some cases increase, making it necessary to prioritize nutrient-dense foods.
Why appetite declines with aging
A number of age-related changes can cause appetite to fade.
For one, our stomach empties more slowly when we’re older. That means that food sticks around longer, prolonging the feeling of fullness.
Aging also alters the levels and responsiveness of appetite-related hormones.
There’s evidence that levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and increases food intake, are lower in older people. It’s also thought that cholecystokinin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, does so more strongly when you’re older.
Changes to taste, smell and vision, senses that allow us to enjoy food, can also blunt appetite. So can certain medications, low mood and loneliness.
If your appetite isn’t what it used to be, the following strategies can help squeeze more nutrition into meals and snacks.
Choose nutrient-dense foods
Nutrient-dense foods deliver the greatest nutritional bang for their calorie buck. While most whole foods are nutrient-dense, some pack an exceptionally strong punch.
Three ounces of canned pink salmon, for instance, is an excellent source of protein (20 g), vitamin B12 (nearly two days’ worth), vitamin D3 (490 IU) and calcium (241 milligrams with bones). It also supplies 60 per cent of the daily requirement for immune-supportive selenium. Other types of salmon and sardines are worthy stand-ins.
Leafy greens also deliver plenty of nutrients. One-half cup of cooked spinach contains an impressive amount of bone-building vitamin K (445 mg) and blood-pressure-regulating potassium (440 mg), along with lots of beta-carotene and lutein, an antioxidant that protects brain cells and vision.
Smoothies are excellent vehicles for vital nutrients, plus they’re digested more quickly than solid foods. Soups made with protein (chicken, beans, lentils), whole grains (barley, wild rice) and vegetables are also nutrient-dense.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, choose frozen. You’ll use only the amount you need without worrying about food waste.
Don’t skimp on protein
With age, adults turn protein into muscle less efficiently and, as a result, need to eat more of it to support muscle mass and strength.
Include a good source of protein at every meal, including breakfast. High-protein choices include fish, chicken, lean meat, eggs, cottage cheese, Greek and Icelandic yogurt, milk, soy milk, beans and lentils, tofu and edamame.
Consider meal timing
Take advantage of your appetite by eating your biggest meal when you feel most hungry, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Plan for a nutrient-rich snack between meals that are more than four hours apart (e.g., yogurt and berries, dried fruit with nuts, whole-grain crackers and cheese or a fruit smoothie).
Or, consider eating smaller balanced meals more frequently throughout the day.
Do you need a nutrition supplement drink?
Nutrition supplement drinks (e.g., Ensure, Boost, Glucerna) can be used as a convenient snack to supplement calories, protein, vitamin and minerals, especially for older adults who struggle to eat enough.
But they shouldn’t substitute all meals since they’re not nutritionally complete. These supplements may not contain enough protein, plus they’re lacking in fibre and protective phytochemicals found in many whole foods.
And most are high in added sugars to enhance palatability (which isn’t a bad thing for those who need extra calories).
Depending on your nutrient needs and health status, consult your dietitian or doctor to determine which product is right for you.
When decreased appetite is a concern
In some cases, age-related declines in appetite and hunger can lead to unintentional weight loss.
Weighing too little when you’re older is tied to an increased risk of frailty, falls, hospital stays and earlier death.
Consult your doctor if you (or an aging parent) have lost weight without trying and/or your loss of appetite is more noticeable than usual.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD