How calorie needs change with age

It seems as though every year we get older, it gets easier to gain weight — to a point. For most of our adult lives, a decrease in physical activity and decrease in muscle mass make it easier to pack on pounds. Due to these factors, calorie needs decrease even though some vitamin and mineral needs increase.

However, as we age past our older adult years, our appetite tends to drop due to a variety of factors. For that reason, we need to encourage the older people in our lives to eat more calorie-dense foods or eat small meals more often.

All this can be a bit confusing. When do calorie needs decrease and when does appetite drop? Why do all of these changes happen? What signs should I be looking out for?

To start, calorie needs are determined based on height, weight, gender, and age. From there, calorie needs may increase based on what you spend most of your day doing and the amount of physical activity you’re participating in.

There a few equations that calculate this information including the most popular — the Harris Benedict equation. If you’re interested in calculating the numbers for yourself, a quick search on Google for “Harris Benedict equation” can provide you with an easy-to-use calculator if you know your height and weight.

As you get older, your muscle mass begins to decrease even if you don’t notice it, a condition called sarcopenia. Muscle that breaks down is replaced with fat and fibrotic scar tissue, neither of which have the same strength capabilities as muscle. Since muscle burns more calories than scar tissue and fat, our calorie needs decrease as well.

Aging also brings changes in taste, a dry mouth (a condition known as xerostomia), dental problems, and neurological conditions that can decrease appetite and interest in eating. While this may seem like a good thing given the decrease in calorie needs, it can actually cause additional health complications such as significant weight loss and malnutrition if unnoticed or untreated.

Significant weight loss, defined as a weight loss of 5 percent in one month, 7.5 percent in three months, or 10 percent in six months, can cause the loss of fat that protects our internal organs such as the kidney. This can cause infection or problems with urination and may require a surgical intervention.

Malnutrition, which is a problem with the balance of nutrients, can cause a loss of muscle, increase in frailty or fracture risk, and increased risk of pressure ulcers if a person has limited mobility.

Recognizing the early symptoms of severely decreased appetite can be difficult. Pay attention to changed eating habits or if a person is skipping meal times more often. If you do notice something or a person is frequently declining to eat because they’re just not hungry, there are a few things you can do:

— Encourage small, frequent meals;

— Focus on calorie- and nutrient-dense foods such as nuts or nut butters, avocados, and whole fat yogurt;

— Speak with your doctor about adding nutritional shakes such as Ensure or Boost to your loved one’s diet.

While calorie needs may decrease throughout our life, not consuming enough calories can pose an even bigger risk. Paying attention to your loved one’s eating habits is as important as making sure they take their medications every day.

If you’re concerned, ask your loved one if there are specific reasons why he or she may not be eating as much and voice concerns about food intake at his or her next doctor’s visit.

Editor’s note: Sarah Roger is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher and incoming second-year medical student at Albany Medical College. She is interning with Community Caregivers this summer and will be writing articles on health and wellness, which are both topics she is passionate about.