10 Questions to Ask About Nutrition and Aging

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on November 28, 2022
4 min read

Good nutrition is the cornerstone of healthy aging. Yet as we age, our dietary requirements change. We usually don’t need as many calories. But we have to be sure we get enough of certain key nutrients, like calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.

Getting proper nutrition often becomes harder with age because of things like loss of appetite or problems with chewing or swallowing food. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your doctor about nutrition. Here are questions you may want to ask.

Surveys show that many Americans, especially older Americans, aren’t getting all the nutrition they need.

Even many people who are overweight fall short on vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. They get plenty of calories, but they may not be getting enough nutrition. Unfortunately, a long-term lack of nutrients may happen before symptoms show up.

Early signs of this may include:

A physical exam may alert your doctor to poor nutrition. Blood tests can show whether you get enough of some key nutrients, such as iron or vitamin D.

A range of medicines, including many often used by older adults, can interfere with good nutrition.

Some pain relievers and arthritis meds irritate the stomach, for example. Some antibiotics, stool softeners, and chemotherapy drugs can affect how food tastes. Antidepressants, diuretics, pain medications, and some heart drugs can lower your appetite.

A variety of treatments can stifle the body’s ability to absorb vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. These include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and medications.

There are many reasons why older adults often don’t have a big appetite. Because they are usually less active than younger people, they need fewer calories. And less ability to taste may mean that food just doesn’t have as much appeal as it once did.

However, a big loss of appetite or weight loss can also be a sign of depression or other serious health problems. Tell your doctor if you see a change in your appetite or lose weight without trying.

Experts disagree about whether older Americans should take multivitamins. Most nutritionists agree that the best way to get your nutrients is from food, not pills.

If you have trouble eating a balanced diet, ask your doctor whether you should take a multivitamin. Be sure to let your doctor know about all pills you take, including supplements.

Some people may need to take additional supplements of certain nutrients.

For example, if you don’t eat foods rich in calcium, like dairy products, you may need a supplement. Talk to your doctor before taking any pills.

If you have high blood pressure, or even if your blood pressure is at the high end of normal, try cutting back on salt.

The American Heart Association recommends everyone have less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. They estimate that if people did this, it would result in a 25% drop in high blood pressure across the country.

Up to three-quarters of the salt we eat comes in packaged foods, so reading labels is particularly helpful.

Moderate amounts of alcohol reduce the risk of heart disease.

This doesn’t mean you should start drinking. But if you already drink alcohol, talk to your doctor about a safe level for you. Drinking too much can lead to serious health problems.

Many older people can cut back on blood pressure, cholesterol, or other medications if they eat a healthier diet and get more exercise. Some discover they can go off certain prescription drugs completely.

Talk to your doctor about whether a healthier lifestyle could mean taking fewer pills. Don’t stop taking medicines on your own.

Even though doctors understand the importance of a healthy diet, they often don’t have time to provide complete dietary counseling. If you have more questions than your doctor has time to answer, ask them to recommend a registered dietitian. Medicare and private insurers often cover nutrition consultations.