As people age, they tend to become less active. Their metabolism slows down, affecting their appetite and leading to unintentional weight loss or gain. One of the important causes of weight gain in elderly people is decreased physical activity and energy expenditure, says Dr Haroon H, consultant, internal medicine, KMC Hospital, Mangaluru. Additionally, hormonal changes and a decrease in muscle mass can also contribute to weight gain. Experts share some measures that can help older adults maintain an ideal body weight.
Factors affecting weight in elderly people
Dr Haroon shares that joint and musculoskeletal issues that often bug elderly people cause a decline in their exercise capacity. They may also have some undiagnosed hormonal issues that can affect their weight. Apart from that, organic diseases (like malignant and non-malignant gastrointestinal complications) and psychiatric conditions (like depression and dementia) can contribute to unintentional weight loss. Sarcopenia, a condition characterized by the progressive loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, usually grips people of this age group as well, he informs.
Malnourishment among elderly people is also a major challenge, says Pitchiah Kasinathan, dietitian, Fortis Hospital, Chennai. The number of taste buds decreases with age. Hence, they don’t enjoy food, which causes a dip in their food intake. This, in turn, affects their weight. Besides this, reduced food intake can also result from multiple factors, ranging from a lack of proper dentures to metabolic anomalies, which could all lead to nutritional deficiencies. Those without proper dentures, or a lack thereof, cannot enjoy food properly. Their portion size will reduce, resulting in their nutritional requirements being unmet. This, in turn, will lead to malnutrition, explains Kasinathan.
Tips for older adults to maintain a healthy body weight
1. Exercise regularly
According to Kasinathan, doing moderate levels of physical activity will boost metabolism and help elderly people achieve an ideal body weight. He advises those with renal or heart issues to avoid strength training and opt for simple exercise like brisk walking. Even doing simple chores around the house like gardening or taking out the trash will help.
Dr Haroon advises older adults to undergo a comprehensive geriatric assessment before opting for an exercise program. This helps them assess their baseline functional capacity and how much exercise they can perform without sustaining injuries or experiencing other complications.
2. Eat small meals throughout the day
Older adults, owing to their slow metabolism, should consume small meals throughout the day, says Kasinathan. Delayed eating or skipping meals can slow down their metabolism further. The daily calorie requirements for adults aged 51 and above range from 1,600 to 2,200 calories for women and 2,000 to 2,800 calories for men. However, Dr Haroon says that the calorie requirement must be tailored to each individual based on their level of physical activity.
3. Ensure adequate hydration
Dr Haroon says not drinking enough water can affect metabolism and energy levels. According to experts, the recommended amount of water intake is 2–3 liters per day. Kasinathan recommends elderly people include fluids like tender coconut water and buttermilk in their diet.
4. Eat fiber and protein-rich foods
It’s imperative for older adults to follow a diet rich in fiber and protein while avoiding foods that are processed, sugar-rich and contain empty calories, says Kasinathan. They can also have fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains, says Dr Haroon. In addition, having cooked, soft and easy-to-digest food is advisable.
According to Kerala-based nutritionist Soumya Nair, the ideal protein requirement for an older adult is between 0.8 grams/kg and 1 gram/kg/day. Apart from fruits and veggies, she suggests fulfilling the protein requirements with plant-based foods such as lentils, beans and nuts.
5. Get a good night’s sleep
Improper sleep, often overlooked, has become a major risk factor for several health problems. A study published in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice found that a short sleep duration (less than 7 hours) was associated with the risk of future obesity.
Disturbed sleeping patterns can lead to poor eating habits, with one binging primarily on calorie-rich foods high in fat and carbohydrates. A duration of 7–9 hours of sleep per night is considered appropriate to support good health in adults in the age range of 18–60 years.
6. Ensure regular health check-ups
Regular health check-ups are crucial for older adults to keep track of their weight. Dr Haroon recommends tests like a complete blood count, basic metabolic panel, liver function tests, thyroid function tests, urinalysis, etc. for evaluating unintentional weight loss in elderly people. These tests help identify any underlying health issues that may contribute to weight gain, which must be addressed immediately.