Food for Thought This Healthy Aging Month

Healthy Aging Month is a great time to consider how beliefs and behaviors around food change as we age.  Aside from what is often a distinct set of beliefs about nutrition, and an evolving set of eating behaviors, older adults also have different nutritional needs than their younger counterparts. As the body ages, it processes food more slowly and requires different levels of nutrients in order to fuel the body, maintain muscle mass and promote optimal cognitive health.

The 2017 Food and Health Survey findings include a detailed report focused exclusively on older adults ages 50 to 80. This report was conducted in collaboration with the AARP Foundation.  The findings shed new light on older adults’ eating attitudes and perceptions. Let’s see how they stack up against their younger counterparts.
  

Health Risks

  • Reality: Older adults are among the most at-risk populations for various chronic illnesses. Heart disease and complications from obesity are the two biggest concerns for older adults. Risk of both of these conditions can increase with poor diet and insufficient exercise but can be limited by a healthy eating style and increased physical activity. 
  • 2017 Food & Health Survey: Older adults are looking for specific benefits from food to address their unique health risks. For the general population, weight management/loss is the top benefit that people are interested in getting from the food they eat. Around the age of 50, cardiovascular benefits start to outweigh weight management as the top benefits consumers want from food. This shows older adults are well aware of their changing nutrition needs and are looking for foods that will help them meet their goals. Older adults – compared to their younger counterparts - are also more likely to be able to name a food or nutrient that can provide the health benefits they want. So not only do they know what health benefits they want from food, but they are also more likely to know where to look for them.

Fluid and Fiber

  • Recommendation: Fluid and fiber are key nutrients for healthy aging. Drinking small amounts of water or other fluids throughout the day is necessary to stay hydrated. As the body ages, proper hydration becomes increasingly difficult. The digestive system also tends to slow down as we age, so fiber can help prevent problems like constipation, bloating or general abdominal discomfort.

  • 2017 Food & Health Survey: Older adults are more likely to be taking steps to be healthy than younger age groups. They are also working to meet their fluid and fiber needs. For example, many older adults report efforts to “drink more water or other liquids to stay hydrated” (88%), and “eat more fruits and vegetables” (84%) in the past year. Also, around three-quarters of older adults report making an effort to eat more whole grains. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are all great sources of fiber. Taken together, these insights show that older adults are taking steps toward better hydration and digestive health.

As you can see, older adults are a pretty nutrition-savvy group. The 2017 Food and Health Survey shows how older adults may be changing their eating habits to match their unique nutrition needs and to lower their risk for chronic disease.

This could be, at least partially, a result of who they trust for their information. The survey shows how older adults are more likely to trust conversations with healthcare professionals and registered dietitians as sources of information on what to eat and avoid. They are also less likely than younger consumers to get nutrition information from family and friends. This trust in – and reliance on - credentialed sources, like health professionals and registered dietitians, could be putting older adults on the path to good nutrition.

For more information on how nutrition needs change over time, and how to get the nutrients you need for healthy aging, check out this resource.

Adam Sachs, University of Maryland dietetic intern, contributed to this post.