Why dieting and ageing don’t mix

Older Australians are advised to be aware of the dangers of eating to lose or maintain weight loss “like body-conscious 20-year-olds”. Concerns have arisen that those who feel the pressure to maintain a trim body, are putting themselves at risk of health complications – and it’s forcing them into aged care.

In a radio interview for ABC’s Life Matters, dietician Ngaire Hobbins, who specialises in nutrition for those over 60, says she’s concerned that older people aren’t eating enough and avoiding certain foods (such as fat). As the body grows frailer with age, it expends more energy trying to repair itself but it is less able to do it efficiently. There is also the misconception that older people don’t need to eat as much as those who are younger. “The problem is you need the same amount of nutrients…to fight the ravages of age,” says Hobbins.

Current research supports Hobbins’ findings that many older body-conscious Australians end up “fail and malnourished” in hospitals and aged care facilities, after adhering to diet restrictions that are more applicable to younger people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. There is a lot of emphasis that being lean equates to being healthy. However, Hobbins says that it’s natural for the “muscles in your abdomen to slacken” as you grow older, which makes any extra fat around your middle appear worse than it may be.

When younger people lose weight, they lose a combination of fat and muscle – but they’re able to rebuild muscle easily through exercise and eating protein. However, this isn’t the case with older people. Hobbins says that when you’re older, if you lose muscle over a number of years or while on a deficient diet, “you can find yourself in a position where your immune system is being hampered” and “where organ repair starts to dwindle”.

Hobbins says a protein-rich diet is essential for older people to “bolster” the “repair work” that is required as the body undergoes “more wear and tear”. Protein helps support a healthy immune system, provides glucose for your brain and helps repair organ and skin damage.

In some cases, older Australians are forced into nutrient-deficient diets, particularly those living below the poverty line, and who live on budgets or a pension. These people often “can’t afford to access good food”. Others who Hobbins identifies as being at risk are people (notably men) whose primary meal providers have passed away and who “don’t really have the skills” to prepare nutritious meals for themselves.

Hobbins advises older people not to shy away from fat, particularly if they’re active and generally healthy. Fat helps keep your appetite going, particularly when you hit the 80s age range and begin to struggle with your appetite.

The bottom line is that what’s healthy in your younger years may not be the case later on. Physical and dietary needs change as you get older and people should learn how to adjust their diets to suit this. While nutritional supplements are available, Hobbins suggests “eating a range of food” including protein and other foods in a range of colours, to get ensure your body is receiving the right amounts of each essential nutrient.

You can listen to the entire interview with Ngaire Hobbins at abc.net.au.

Written by ameliath