Elder Nutrition Guide
The importance of proper nutrition is stressed throughout pregnancy, infancy, childhood, and our adult years. These times are meant for nourishing and growing - for achieving health and wellness that allows us to thrive. As we continue to age, it’s equally important to continue these practices of self-love, nourishing, and care. When we neglect our health through poor diet, lack of fun and passion, exposure to toxins, and disconnecting from our bodies, we begin to cultivate and experience symptoms of pain, illness, and disease.
The elderly population is more likely to face health challenges, such as high blood pressure, arthritis, osteoporosis, constipation, indigestion, low appetite, heart disease, obesity, low stomach acid, low enzymatic function, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, diabetes, and cancer. People suffering from these conditions are given prescriptions and medications that manage the symptoms but fail to actually treat the root cause of the symptoms. While we often believe that these conditions are a normal part of the aging process and that they’re inevitable, this is not true. Although aging does naturally bring on health challenges, many are preventable with proper knowledge, nutrition, and self-care practices. We can support our bodies through diet and lifestyle, to not only manage our symptoms, but to get to the root cause and prevent them from happening in the first place.
This guide will discuss some common ailments of the elderly population including low stomach acid and enzymatic functioning, constipation, and low appetite. We’ll cover what they are, why they happen (discussing a range of possible root causes), and various solutions.
Nutrient-Rich Foods for a Low Appetite
A gradual loss of appetite is quite common in the elderly. Most often, this is a normal condition that may be related to decreased caloric needs due to decreased activity levels, as well as reduced levels of hormones, medication side effects, changes in senses, and problems with dentures. A loss of appetite could also be caused by a more serious illness or condition such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, thyroid disorders, liver disease, or kidney disorders.
Although eating less may not be an issue, it’s important to support the body with nutrient-dense meals consisting of complex carbohydrates, fiber, antioxidant-rich foods, high-quality protein, healthy fats, and adequate amounts of water. This can be difficult to achieve with limited food intake. Here’s what you can do:
Focus on small, nutrient-dense meals. This is the best way to counteract a low appetite. Include plenty of vegetables, lower-glycemic fruits such as berries, apples, and pears, beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, healthy fats such as avocados and ghee, and high-quality protein sources such as organic poultry, grass-fed meats, wild-caught cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines are some great options), and pastured eggs. If you’re not hungry for an entire meal, eat a small meal (or snack) that focuses on the ingredients above.
Learn to love snacking. You don’t need to consume giant meals to get in your daily intake of essential macro and micronutrients. A great snack that will provide fiber, healthy fats, and balance blood sugar levels is a cup of unsweetened applesauce with 1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds and cinnamon.
Include superfood ingredients. Focus on foods that are especially healthy and chock-full of benefits, such as antioxidant-rich berries, avocados (full of healthy fats), seaweeds (full of iodine), and raw fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir (which are full of natural probiotics).
Avoid packaged, processed and refined foods, sugar, and table salt (Himalayan salt is best). These foods lack essential vitamins and minerals, and in some cases (such as sugar) can actually rob the body of vitamins as they’re so difficult for the body to process and assimilate. Avoid filling up on foods that are low in nutrients, such as bread and crackers or jams and cookies. While they’re typically easy to digest, they won’t provide you with the fuel you need to stay healthy and vibrant.
Make drinking enough water a habit. It’s easy to forget about drinking water, and to replace it instead with coffee, tea, and juices. These drinks don’t provide the same level of hydration, however. Drinking adequate amounts of water is absolutely vital for every single one of the body’s systems (there’s a reason this advice is so often repeated!). Consume at least half of your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water on a daily basis. If you don’t like drinking plain water, spruce it up by adding berries, lemon or lime wedges, or slices of cucumber.
The need for calories decreases in the elderly, but you still require the same, if not more, amount of nutrients for optimal health. Consuming well-balanced meals will support the body, giving it the nutrients it needs to maintain a healthy weight, stay energized, support cognitive function, and decrease the risk of developing chronic health conditions and disease.
Counteracting Low Stomach Acid & Enzymes
As the body ages, various functions and secretions often begin to decline. Stomach acid and enzymes are two very common deficiencies in the senior population. Both have major effects on the function of the digestive system.
Low Stomach Acid
Stomach acid is an essential part of digestion that’s needed for the breakdown of food in the stomach, as well as for activating digestive enzymes and the secretion of bile, and for inhibiting bacteria and pathogens from entering the small intestine. When stomach acid production declines, these functions are compromised, which leads to a host of problems such as gas and bloating, heartburn, acid reflux, leaky gut (often manifested as food allergies and intolerances), nutrient deficiencies, and much more. Symptoms of low stomach acid include gas, bloating, constipation, bad breath, undigested food particles in stool, feeling heavy and tired after eating, and the development of allergies. Although these symptoms are very common and low stomach acid is a widespread issue, it can be reversed quite simply by following these tips:
Stop eating refined and processed foods. These foods are high in salt, sugar, and other ingredients that are low in nutrients, such as wheat, corn, soy, and potato. To encourage adequate stomach acid production, focus instead on eating a well-balanced diet that contains plenty of fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and high-quality protein.
Eat small, regular meals. The consumption of large, heavy metals can lead to a decline in stomach acid production. It’s best to eat smaller meals or snacks throughout the day. Overeating in any form puts unneeded stress on the body and hampers optimal digestion.
Chew food thoroughly until it becomes a paste. As we chew, digestive enzymes are released in our saliva, which facilitates the proper breakdown and digestion of foods. Focus on chewing your food properly and take your time eating. Eating in a rush should be avoided at all costs.
Ditch the coffee. (or at least reduce your consumption to 1/2 a cup -1 cup max per day) As mentioned above, coffee is not as good a source of hydration as plain water. Furthermore, excessive coffee consumption can lead to the development of low stomach acid due to its high acidity and propensity to get you dehydrated.
Drink filtered water. Replace coffee and tea consumption with large amounts of water. Rather than drinking tap water, buy spring water or consider investing in a filter such as the Berkey. It’s important to drink water that is free of chlorine and other toxic chemicals such as fluoride. Drink your water away from meals, however - drinking too much water with food can further dilute stomach acid, weakening digestion.
Practice proper food combining. Improper food combining can lead to low stomach acid production. Avoid combining proteins with starches (for example, steak and potatoes or a grilled cheese sandwich), proteins with other proteins (for example, a meat and cheese omelette), or yogurt with sour fruits. You should also avoid eating fruit after a meal - fruit as a dessert is a no-go. Better food combinations include fruit for breakfast or on an empty stomach (melon especially should only be eaten alone and on an empty stomach), protein with vegetables, and starches with non-starchy vegetables.
Don’t be afraid of a bit of salt. As long as you’re not eating a high-sodium diet (which typically occurs only when people are eating a lot of processed, refined, and restaurant foods), getting some salt in your diet is actually very important. Opt for sea salt, Celtic salt, or Himalayan pink salt rather than table salt, and add these to home-cooked foods in moderate amounts. You can also add about a ¼ teaspoon of salt to every quart of water you drink, along with some freshly-squeezed lemon juice, as this will improve hydration levels and your body’s ability to absorb and assimilate the water.
Avoid antacids. Contrary to popular belief, heartburn is most often actually the result of low stomach acid, not high stomach acid. When there are low levels of stomach acid, food can’t be properly broken down and this can lead to fermentation of food in the stomach and small intestine. This fermentation causes acids to be pushed up into the esophagus, causing classic heartburn symptoms which appear to be the result of excess stomach acid. Medications such as antacids are heavily prescribed to neutralize stomach acid, which is helpful when there is an ulcer, but which could be doing more harm than good in cases of low stomach acid. If you’re experiencing acute heartburn and need relief, try taking a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (mixed in with a glass of water) before meals.
Ensure adequate intake of zinc. Stomach acid production depends on zinc, so it’s important to get enough zinc through the diet. Good food sources of zinc include oysters, ginger root, lamb, pecans, dry split peas, Brazil nuts, oats, and almonds. Supplementation may also be helpful, especially when first correcting low stomach acid. Supplement 15-20 mg of zinc citrate per day until digestion improves (no longer than one month).
Find effective stress management tools. Chronic stress is one of the most common underlying factors of low stomach acid production. Stress, worry, and anxiety can all negatively impact digestion. While it’s easier said than done, it’s important to cultivate moments of calm, peace, and quiet on a daily basis. Trying going for a daily walk, meditating, journaling, practicing yoga or Tai Chi, deep breathing, or anything else that works for you to bring you a sense of relaxation. It’s also important to eat slowly in a calm, serene environment without too much stimulation or distraction.
Every action in the human body requires enzymes. They keep the metabolism working and are critical for proper digestion. Under normal circumstance, the body is capable of producing enzymes such as amylase, protease, lipase, and disaccharidase, all of which are responsible for the chemical breakdown of the various macronutrients. As mentioned earlier, the activation of some enzymes is dependant on appropriate levels of stomach acid. For example, the pancreas needs sufficient stomach acid present to trigger the activation of pancreatic enzymes, which are needed for proper digestion and absorption of foods, vitamins, and minerals. No matter how good the diet may be, if our enzymes aren't properly functioning, the body will not be able to absorb and assimilate the nutrients it takes in. Enzyme deficiency leads to nutrient deficiency and this cycle continues to circle until corrected.
Enzyme deficiency is very common in the aging and elderly populations, and is a major contributor to degenerative and chronic inflammatory conditions. It’s therefore vital to do everything possible to prevent this deficiency. Here’s how:
Avoid unnatural foods. Milling and refining, canning, irradiation, freezing, preservatives, pesticides, and consuming refined, processed, and/or packaged foods all contribute to low enzymatic activity. Enzymes have highly specific requirements for their proper activation and effectiveness, such as appropriate levels of pH, temperature, substrate, moisture, and more. Without these specific conditions, some enzymes won’t be activated and won’t be able to do their job.
Eat fresh, local, whole foods as much as possible. It’s also wise to opt for organic whenever you can. To improve enzymatic activity, be sure to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, sprouted seeds and grains, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, honey, and miso. It’s also beneficial to eat smaller, regular meals and to not overeat, as mentioned above.
Make sure to not overcook foods. This is another common way that enzymatic activity is inhibited. Rather, incorporate more raw and lightly-steamed vegetables into your daily diet. Ideally, each meal should include at least one raw item.
Only take essential medications. Many medications, including aspirin, inhibit enzymatic activity in the body. Take only the prescribed medications that you truly need, and avoid taking unnecessary doses of aspirin, antacids, and other over-the-counter medications.
Chew your food properly. As mentioned above, chewing food adequately prompts the release of enzymes from the saliva, which facilitates proper digestion.
Supplement with a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme. Taking digestive enzymes with meals might also be helpful, if the tips above are not producing adequate results.
A large portion of the population suffers from chronic constipation, especially the elderly. A regular bowel movement should be smooth, soft, and easy to pass, and it’s ideal to have 2-3 bowel movements per day. Here’s how to ensure you stay regular:
Get enough fluids. Dehydration is the single greatest cause of constipation. As food moves through the intestines and turns into feces ready to be evacuated, the body attempts to reabsorb as much water as possible (to prevent water loss) as it sits in the large intestine. If you’re chronically dehydrated, this effect will be amplified. Stay properly hydrated by avoiding coffee and tea and by drinking half your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water daily.
Ensure adequate intake of fiber. A low-fiber diet is one of the other most common causes of constipation. Aim to consume at least 35 grams of fiber daily to relieve constipation and promote healthy bowels. Great sources of fiber include ground flax seeds, oats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Prunes and linseeds are also great options which encourage healthy elimination.
Eat plenty of good-quality fats. Ensuring adequate fat consumption is another important step in preventing and relieving constipation, as fats are lubricating to the digestive system. Opt for healthy sources such as avocados, coconut products (coconut oil, butter, flesh, etc.), ghee, and extra virgin olive oil. Avoid unhealthy fats such as most vegetable oils, fried foods, and hydrogenated or trans fats (from processed foods and margarine).
Reduce consumption of red meat and milk products, as well as packaged and processed foods. These foods are low-fiber and cause heaviness in the body, as they’re difficult for the body to process and assimilate. They’re also high in acidity. Opt for alkaline-forming foods instead, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and legumes.
Get enough physical activity. A lack of regular exercise and movement causes stagnation and sluggishness throughout the body. It’s important to move the body and to get some form of light exercise everyday, such as walking, yoga, Tai Chi, or swimming. This will improve circulation and help to prevent constipation.
Understand the side effects of your medications. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications cause constipation, so be aware if you’re on this type of medication. Consume extra water and fiber to counteract the effects.
If you need laxatives, opt for natural herbs. Avoid taking laxative pills, as they can be very irritating to the bowels and can cause the body to become dependent on them for elimination. Herbs such as slippery elm, licorice, juniper, gentian, and rhubarb are great alternatives to conventional laxatives. They provide relief from constipation but should still only be used short-term when needed. Triphila is one of the most gentle laxatives and it helps to tonify the colon as well, icreasing bowel function.
Aging tends to bring on a host of new health challenges, but we do not have to accept them as inevitable and insurmountable. With proper understanding, dietary changes, and supportive lifestyle practices, many can be prevented and healed naturally.