This is the diet recommended for older people

As we age it continues to be important to look after ourselves and eat well.

Unintentional weight loss and malnutrition in older people is very common. Often people do not realise they have lost weight or are losing weight. It can be a very gradual process, noticed by others commenting on weight loss or noticing your clothes do not fit properly. 

Malnutrition results in a loss of muscle, which can reduce our ability to move as well as we used to and to care for ourselves. Malnutrition also slows our recovery from illness, increases the risk of infections and means that wounds take longer to heal.

Reasons for weight loss can range from recovering from illness, chewing or swallowing difficulties, depression, loneliness, or financial concerns.

I receive many referrals from GPs and other health professionals with concern for weight loss and fatigue in elderly people.

With a little bit of encouragement, discussion about ways to increase energy intake and, in some cases, using a supplement for a short period of time, their weight increases. They report feeling they have more energy, are sleeping better, appetite improves and they are once again enjoying meals and socialising.

If you find yourself in this situation here a few things that can help get you back on track.

1. Eat regularly, ensuring you enjoy 3 meals a day plus snacks in-between.   

2. Make use of prepared meals, e.g. frozen meals from supermarket, MOW (Meals on Wheels), Eat (delivered fresh meals). You might use these for a short period of time, or on an ongoing basis.

3. Fortify your food. Don`t be afraid to use extra fat, butter, oil, cream. Previously you may have been advised to avoid these to try and lose weight or for other health reasons. But at this time of your life these foods are ok and will help with weight gain. Use of gravies and sauces will make meals tasty, moist and higher in calories. You can also add milk powder to cereal, and sauces, custards etc. to give an extra protein boost.

4. You may use a supplement drink, like Complan, Ensure or a milky milo. Have this as an extra rather than a meal replacement.

5. Avoid drinking with meals as this can fill you up and you may not be able to eat your full meal.

6. Eat foods containing calcium - at least three servings of calcium-containing foods a day for good bone health. Dairy products are our best sources but calcium is also found in nuts, grains, green veg and bones of tinned fish.

7. Eat nutrient dense foods. Follow the ideal plate plan – one quarter of the plate protein, one quarter starch/carbohydrates and half of the plate vegetables. Have at least two serves of protein a day. Use good quality protein, like meat, fish, chicken, eggs and dairy products. This will ensure you are getting enough protein to prevent muscle wasting and enough iron in your diet. A diet low in iron can led to fatigue and the inability to heal properly.

8. Buy foods on special and in season. It doesn't need to be expensive to eat well. Smaller servings of good quality food is nutritionally better than a large serving of an inferior food. For example, use premium mince instead of standard mince and fish fillet instead of fish fingers.

9. Make sure you get outside and enjoy some sun as this will help boost your vitamin D levels. Elderly people are at risk of being low in vitamin D, which is essential for good bone health. Just a walk around the garden or sitting outside will help.  You can also get vitamin D from eggs, dairy products and oily fish. If you are unable to get outside then you may need a vitamin D supplement.

10. Make sure you get yourself up every morning and change into day clothes. Leave the bedroom for sleeping and not a day room. It sounds silly, but staying in bed all day or hanging about in your pyjamas all day can affect your mood.

11. Talk to your friends and family and arrange meals together. Try new foods and enjoy old favourites.

Eat well and enjoy your later years.

Written by Judith Walsh. First appeared on Stuff.co.nz.