How Can Underweight Seniors Achieve a Healthy Weight?

February 23, 2018

As seniors get older, it’s common for them to gradually eat less and less.

It’s estimated that 17% of Canadian seniors over the age of 65 are underweight when measured with an appropriate body mass index adjusted for the age group.

Seniors may be underweight due to a variety of factors, including reduced appetite, limited mobility, or a loss of smell and taste. Additionally, many seniors have dental issues that make it difficult to eat certain foods. Over time, these factors can result in seniors becoming underweight and malnourished, which has a variety of negative health consequences. These include a weakened immune system, increased muscle loss, and increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture.  

While the health consequences can be serious, steps can be taken to prevent them if you or a family member are underweight or at risk of becoming so. The first and most important step is to check with a doctor to determine if the weight loss is caused by under-eating or by an underlying medical condition. After determining that a change in diet is necessary to prevent low body weight, some adjustments to the diet can be made. These include preparing calorie-dense foods and drinks, changing the frequency and size of meals, and ensuring that the new diet provides adequate nutrients.

Choose calorie-dense foods

Older adults commonly have a decreased appetite, which means they can’t eat as much food as younger people. For this reason, it’s important for them to eat calorie-dense foods. This will allow them to eat a smaller amount of food but still get the amount of calories they need to achieve a healthy weight.

While it may seem tempting to go for high-fat, high-calorie foods, underweight seniors should consume foods that are both calorie-dense and healthy. Their diet should provide the appropriate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. For seniors with dental issues, it’s a good idea to cook certain foods longer so they become softer and easier to chew or put them in a food processor to break them into smaller chunks, which are more easily digestible.

Nuts and seeds are great options, as they’re small but packed with calories and proteins. Nut butters are also very calorie-dense and will be easier to eat for seniors with dental issues than hard, raw nuts. Peanut butter, almond butter, and cashew butter are great for spreading on toast and vegetables. Other foods that are high in healthy, unsaturated fats include avocados and oils like olive and canola oil. Coconut-based dishes and coconut milk can also be great, but they contain saturated fats and should be consumed in moderation.

Some examples of healthy, calorie-dense eating choices include:

  • Snacking on nuts like walnuts, almonds, and pecans
  • Spreading nut butters on toast, vegetables, or fruit
  • Adding ground seeds like chia seeds and flaxseeds to oatmeals and yogurts
  • Cooking coconut-based dishes or adding coconut milk
  • Adding sliced avocado to salads or spreading it on toast
  • Drizzling healthy oils like olive oils on salads and vegetables

Don’t forget the drinks

Drinks are a fantastic way for older adults to get more calories in their diet without getting filled up on food. Smoothies or milkshakes can be consumed between meals, and there are a variety of ways to up the number of calories while still keeping them healthy and tasty.

Adding nut butters to smoothies is one great way to do this. Ground flax or chia seeds also work and likely won’t affect the taste at all. Adding protein powder to smoothies and drinks is another way to ensure that seniors are getting enough protein in their diet. Making smoothies and milkshakes with whole milk also helps to up the calorie count.

Meal replacement drinks or nutritional supplement beverages can also be a good way to get in some extra calories and protein between meals. Drinks like these are a great way for seniors to boost calorie intake without eating a filling meal. While these beverages usually won’t contain as many calories as a full meal, they can be consumed between meals to benefit seniors looking to put on weight. They’re pre-prepared in bottles and easy to drink, so consuming them requires little to no effort. This is especially useful for seniors who may have a hard time cooking for themselves.

Eat smaller meals more often

Many seniors who try to eat 3 large meals per day have a hard time finishing everything on their plate due to decreased appetites. One potential solution is for seniors to instead eat 5-6 smaller meals and spread them throughout the day. Seniors can still eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at regular times, but the size of the meals can be decreased. Extra “mini-meals” or snacks can then be consumed between regular meal times so seniors get a steady flow of energy and calories throughout the day.  

There are a variety of great, healthy options that seniors can choose for these “mini-meals.” Full-fat yogurt is calorie-dense, contains protein, and is soft and easy to eat for seniors with dental issues. As mentioned above, smoothies and meal replacement drinks are great to drink between meals. Protein bars are often high in calories and proteins, which makes them great for seniors.

Working with doctors or dietitians should be the first step for any seniors who want to gain weight healthily. If seniors have trouble cooking, they can do some research or get help from family members to plan meals that are easy to make or can be made in large batches and frozen for later. Ensuring meals are easy to chew and flavourful will make dishes edible for seniors and stimulate their appetite. With the help of health professionals and the tips outlined in this article, seniors can ensure they achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Maintaining good health as we age can be a challenge, but with the right resources and support older adults can live longer, healthier lives. To learn more about healthy eating, check out our guide on How to Maintain Proper Nutrition as an Older Adult or sign up for our newsletter to get wellness tips delivered right to your inbox.

Katie Stewart

Katie is a member of Welbi’s Customer Experience team! She has a background in communications and recreation and is passionate about older adults, exercise, coffee and people.

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