Diets for the elderly

Many age groups have unique nutritional needs. For example, infants and children need the right foods to effectively promote healthy development.

Seniors (people over 65) are another age group with specific needs. To stay healthy during this crucial time in their lives, they need to make sure they get the right nutrition. For example, according to the World Bank, people over 65 will account for 10% of the global population in 2022, up from 7% in 2000.

And as the world’s population ages, especially in wealthier countries like Portugal, Japan and Italy, nutrition for the elderly is more important than ever.

Why is nutrition important for the elderly?

“We are now living in a century of declining global birth rates and a rapidly aging global population,” Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider said recently on the social media platform LinkedIn.

“Therefore, nutritional solutions that support healthy aging offer a significant ‘tailwind’ and the opportunity for additional growth in the coming decades – it is a megatrend that we can become our friend!”

In short: the percentage of the population that can be considered ‘older’ is growing. So the part of the food industry that will be dedicated to meeting the needs of this demographic group will certainly grow as well.

Food aimed at the elderly

Very few new food products are aimed at people over 55. For example, according to Mintel, only 0.0005% of new food and drink and health and hygiene products in 2021 were explicitly targeted at the age group. This is because even people in this age demographic are often reluctant to purchase products specifically aimed at older consumers because they remind them of their own age.

However, there are some good ways to reach an older audience. For example, according to Dr. Craig Rose, founder and CEO of Seaweed and Co., older people are more brand loyal than younger people. Marketing on issues relevant to them, such as menopause, is also important.

Due to the aging population, suggested Vittoria Romano, dietician and chair of the British Dietic Association’s (BDA) Older People Specialist Group, “there is much more attention to the nutritional needs of older people with and without illness. NHS policy has also spotlight on population health management with respect to frailty, which should include the importance of nutrition as we age, although evidence in this area of ​​concern is still evolving.”

The charity Food4Years aims to promote research into the nutritional needs of the elderly, as well as the development of products aimed at providing them with the right nutrition.

What nutrients do seniors need most?

According to Romano, older people need a different diet than younger people to stay healthy, with different amounts of nutrients.

“The evidence does indeed suggest that older adults have slightly different needs than the younger population. [We recommend] a nutritious diet, choosing foods that are slightly higher in protein, calcium, folate (folic acid), and vitamin B12.”

As the population over 65 grows, their nutritional needs are more important than ever. Image source: Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt

Not all nutrients need to be increased, however. “The amount of carbohydrates, sugar, fiber, fat and salt you need will likely remain the same as younger adults.”

An important nutrient for the elderly is vitamin D. It helps support bones, muscles and teeth and can protect against softening of bones, making fractures less likely. According to the British National Health Service (NHS), vitamin D can be found in foods such as oily fish, red meat and egg yolks.

The healthy longevity trend

An aging population also drives the healthy longevity trend, the trend toward eating functional foods that can help a person live longer. The trend is about ‘living healthier for longer’, instead of just extending life. Although it is a new trend, there are already some products that follow this trend, such as the ‘scientific sustainability coffee’ from the company Uda, which contains ingredients such as Ashwagandha, Quercetin, L-theanine and curcumin.

Calcium, which also builds bones, is another important nutrient suggested by the Older People Specialist Group. It can be found in milk, cheese, bread and fish where you eat the bones (for example sardines), according to the NHS.

Protein, which helps maintain muscle strength, and vitamin B12, which maintains energy levels, are also very important for older adults.

Do older people have difficulty accessing the right nutrition?

Some older people struggle to access the right food. According to Food4Years, one in ten people over 65 in the UK are malnourished.

“There may be several reasons why older adults have difficulty obtaining proper nutrition,” Romano told us.

“These include: food poverty [and] deprivation, having access to shops for shopping, [and] access to cooking facilities and the ability to cook.”

Another reason older adults may have trouble getting the right nutrients is the misleading nature of public health messages, Romano suggested, which are aimed primarily at younger people and may not always be relevant to those over 65.

“Other challenges include that current public health messaging is primarily focused on preventing obesity, with weight loss being desirable, and following the Eat Well Guide, which is not appropriate for older adults. Unfortunately, we see that older adults tend to follow public health messaging, which unfortunately can increase their risk of malnutrition.”

How should the industry respond to the nutritional needs of the elderly?

While the industry is certainly addressing the nutritional needs of older adults – as Nestlé’s Schneider notes, they are a growing market – it hasn’t done so enough, Romano says.

“We know that the food industry and researchers are thinking about products aimed at the elderly, but it hasn’t necessarily reached the mainstream yet,” Romano told us.

According to Romano, if the sector wants to respond to these needs, it should take into account a holistic view of nutrition for the elderly.

Following the advice previously explained, as well as further advice on BDA’s resource for older adults, “can support longevity and a better quality of life in old age,” Romano suggested.

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