How Can Underweight Seniors Achieve a Healthy Weight?

When getting older, it’s common for seniors to gradually eat less and less. When using an appropriate measure of body mass index, it’s estimated that 17% of Canadian seniors over the age of 65 are underweight. This can be due to a variety of factors, including reduced appetite, limited mobility, or a loss of smell and taste. Additionally, many seniors have dental issues which makes 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. Some of these include a weakened immune system, increased muscle loss, and increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture.  

While the consequences can be serious, if you or a family member is underweight or at risk of becoming so, there are steps that can be taken to prevent this. The first, most important step is to check with a doctor to determine whether any weight loss is due to not eating enough or if there’s an underlying medical condition causing it. After it’s been determined that a change in diet is necessary to prevent low body weight, some adjustments 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

As older adults commonly have a decreased appetite, they aren’t able to eat as large a volume of food as younger people. For this reason, it’s important for them to eat foods that have a high calorie-to-volume ratio. This will allow them to eat a smaller volume of food but still get the necessary amount of calories needed to achieve a healthy weight.

However, while it may seem tempting to just go for high-fat, high-calorie foods, underweight seniors should be consuming foods that are calorie-dense and healthy as well. A diet should be devised that provides 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 it up 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 who can’t eat hard, raw nuts due to dental issues. 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 contain saturated fats so should be consumed in moderation.

  • Some examples of good, 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 that older adults can 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. As many seniors have a reduced appetite, drinks like these are great ways to boost calorie intake without having to eat a full meal. While they usually won’t contain as many calories as a full meal, drinking them between meals can still be very beneficial for seniors looking to put on weight. They’re pre-prepared in bottles and easy to drink, so consuming them requires basically no effort. This is especially useful for seniors who may have a hard time cooking for themselves.

Eat smaller meals but more often

Due to decreased appetites, many seniors who try to eat 3 large meals per day may have a hard time finishing everything on their plate. One potential solution for this is to instead eat 5-6 smaller meals and spread them out 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 that there is 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 and contains protein, and is soft and easy to eat for seniors with dental issues. As mentioned above, smoothies and meal replacement drinks are also great to drink between meals. Protein bars are also 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 will also stimulate their appetite. With the help of health professionals as well as the tips outlined in this article, seniors can ensure they are able to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.