Malnutrition and the Older Adult1

Wendy J. Dahl 2

Why do older adults develop malnutrition?

Many older adults are at risk for developing malnutrition, the lack of adequate nutrition to maintain health (Moreira et al. 2016). Poor appetite is strongly related to developing malnutrition (van der Pols-Vijlbrief et al. 2014). Problems with swallowing may also lead to lower food intake and risk of malnutrition (Mann, Heuberger, and Wong 2013). Older adults who care for themselves may have problems purchasing and transporting food to their homes and may have difficulties preparing nutritious meals. Use of many medications contributes to malnutrition, due to side effects such as nausea, dry mouth, and gastrointestinal complaints (Moreira et al. 2016). Malnutrition can also result from diseases or health conditions that cause problems with the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.

Figure 1. Weight loss is the most important and often the first sign that food intake is inadequate.
Figure 1.  Weight loss is the most important and often the first sign that food intake is inadequate.
Credit: Spotmatik/iStock/Thinkstock, © Spotmatik

Why are we concerned about malnutrition?

Malnutrition in older adults, particular those in care homes, can lead to many serious health problems (Agarwal et al. 2016). The consequences of malnutrition include:

  • infections

  • pneumonia

  • falls and fractures

  • digestive disorders

  • skin breakdown, pressure sores

  • confusion, memory problems

Figure 2. Malnutrition directly affects quality of life (Rasheed and Woods 2013).
Figure 2.  Malnutrition directly affects quality of life (Rasheed and Woods 2013).
Credit: Lisa F. Young/iStock/Thinkstock, © Lisa F. Young

Malnutrition in older adults may lead to a poor quality of life and contribute to higher care needs, hospitalization, and increased health care costs. Improving nutrition in older adults leads to:

  • Briefer illnesses

  • Fewer and shorter hospital stays

  • Fewer complications

  • Improved functional status

  • More independent living

  • Improved quality of life

What nutrients are most needed to prevent malnutrition?

Energy and Protein

When weight loss happens, total food intake and energy (calories) are inadequate. This leads to loss of body fat and muscle. Loss of muscle leads to weakness and mobility issues (Bollwein et al. 2013). Loss of body fat means there is less energy stored in the event of illness and less "padding" which may cause discomfort and an increased risk of pressure sores (Compher et al. 2007).

Older adults with a higher protein intake have a lower risk of becoming frail (Rahi et al. 2016). Foods high in protein, such as meat, poultry, and fish are recommended. However, some meats may be difficult to chew for those with dental issues or dry mouth. Meats, then, may need to be ground and moistened to encourage intake.

Dairy foods such as milk, yogurt, and cheese are recommended to improve protein and calorie intake (Iuliano, Woods, and Robbins 2013).

Figure 3. Fish provides high quality protein.
Figure 3.  Fish provides high quality protein.
Credit: Jacek Chabraszewski/iStock/Thinkstock, © Jacek Chabraszewski

Figure 4. Dairy products help to improve protein and calorie intake (Iuliano, Woods, and Robbins 2013).
Figure 4.  Dairy products help to improve protein and calorie intake (Iuliano, Woods, and Robbins 2013).
Credit: Rudyanto Wijaya/iStock/Thinkstock, © Rudyanto Wijaya

Eggs and meat alternates such as beans are also encouraged. These foods are good sources of protein and are usually easy to chew and swallow.

In addition to protein, added fat may be needed to increase calories, prevent further weight loss, and encourage weight gain if needed. Adding fats may improve the flavor of foods and may also ease swallowing.

Vitamins and Minerals

Older adults often have low intakes of many vitamins and minerals. For example, folate, magnesium, zinc, and Vitamins E, B6, B12, C and thiamin have been found to be low in older adults living in nursing homes (Lengyel, Whiting, and Zello 2008).

Older adults may need to take a vitamin and mineral supplement, or consume nutritional beverage or pudding supplements with added vitamins and minerals to meet their needs.

What are the vitamin deficiencies of greatest concern?

Vitamin D

Most older adults in the US have intakes of vitamin D well below the recommended level (Whiting and Calvo 2010). Foods naturally rich in vitamin D are limited (fatty fish, egg yolks, some mushrooms). Vitamin D is made in our skin following exposure to sunlight. However, this process decreases with aging and many older adults spend most of their time indoors. Public health warnings against sun exposure have also encouraged people to avoid the sun.

Vitamin D inadequacy occurs frequently in older adults, especially those that live in nursing homes (Dunne and Dahl 2007). Low intakes of vitamin D are related to increased risk of hip fractures, as well as muscle weakness and pain. As diet alone cannot meet vitamin D requirements for the older adults, supplements are required (Whiting and Calvo 2010).

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 deficiency is very common in the older adult. This is a serious deficiency as it leads to irreversible dementia as well as anemia, depression, gastrointestinal disturbances and urinary tract infections.

B12 deficiency in older adults is often due to problems absorbing the vitamin B12 found naturally in foods such as fish, meat, eggs, and milk (Dunne and Dahl 2007). Low dietary intake of B12, such as with a vegan diet, also results in deficiency. Supplements providing B12 are recommended for older adults.

What can caregivers do?

As a caregiver or family member of an older adult, there are several steps you can take to prevent malnutrition. If you notice weight loss or poor nutrient intake, try the following tips.

  • Prepare meals high in protein, including foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and beans.

  • If you notice difficulty chewing, try soft, moist foods and cut up/ground meat.

  • Offer foods with added fats to increase caloric intake and enhance flavor.

  • Offer nutritious snacks or nutritional supplements between meals.

Where can I get more information?

The Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) agent at your local UF/IFAS Extension office may have more information and classes for you to attend. UF/IFAS Extension offices are listed online by UF/IFAS at or

Also, a registered dietitian (RD) can provide reliable information to you. For a referral to an RD in your area, call the Florida Dietetic Association at (850) 386-8850 or check the yellow pages of your phone book.


Agarwal, E., S. Marshall, M. Miller, and E. Isenring. 2016. "Optimising nutrition in residential aged care: A narrative review." Maturitas 92:70–8. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2016.06.013.

Bollwein, J., D. Volkert, R. Diekmann, M. J. Kaiser, W. Uter, K. Vidal, C. C. Sieber, and J. M. Bauer. 2013. "Nutritional status according to the mini nutritional assessment (MNA(R)) and frailty in community dwelling older persons: a close relationship." J Nutr Health Aging 17 (4):351–6. doi: 10.1007/s12603-013-0009-8.

Compher, C., B. P. Kinosian, S. J. Ratcliffe, and M. Baumgarten. 2007. "Obesity reduces the risk of pressure ulcers in elderly hospitalized patients." J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 62 (11):1310–2.

Dunne, J. L., and W. J. Dahl. 2007. "A novel solution is needed to correct low nutrient intakes in elderly long-term care residents." Nutr Rev 65 (3):135–8.

Iuliano, S., J. Woods, and J. Robbins. 2013. "Consuming two additional serves of dairy food a day significantly improves energy and nutrient intakes in ambulatory aged care residents: a feasibility study." J Nutr Health Aging 17 (6):509–13. doi: 10.1007/s12603-013-0025-8.

Lengyel, C. O., S. J. Whiting, and G. A. Zello. 2008. "Nutrient inadequacies among elderly residents of long-term care facilities." Can J Diet Pract Res 69 (2):82–8. doi: 10.3148/69.2.2008.82.

Mann, T., R. Heuberger, and H. Wong. 2013. "The association between chewing and swallowing difficulties and nutritional status in older adults." Aust Dent J 58 (2):200–6. doi: 10.1111/adj.12064.

Moreira, N. C., S. Krausch-Hofmann, C. Matthys, C. Vereecken, E. Vanhauwaert, A. Declercq, G. E. Bekkering, and J. Duyck. 2016. "Risk Factors for Malnutrition in Older Adults: A Systematic Review of the Literature Based on Longitudinal Data." Adv Nutr 7 (3):507–22. doi: 10.3945/an.115.011254.

Rahi, B., Z. Colombet, M. Gonzalez-Colaco Harmand, J. F. Dartigues, Y. Boirie, L. Letenneur, and C. Feart. 2016. "Higher Protein but Not Energy Intake Is Associated With a Lower Prevalence of Frailty Among Community-Dwelling Older Adults in the French Three-City Cohort." J Am Med Dir Assoc 17 (7):672.e7–672.e11. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2016.05.005.

Rasheed, S., and R. T. Woods. 2013. "Malnutrition and quality of life in older people: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Ageing Res Rev 12 (2):561–6. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2012.11.003.

van der Pols-Vijlbrief, R., H. A. Wijnhoven, L. A. Schaap, C. B. Terwee, and M. Visser. 2014. "Determinants of protein-energy malnutrition in community-dwelling older adults: a systematic review of observational studies." Ageing Res Rev 18:112–31. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2014.09.001.

Whiting, S. J., and M. S. Calvo. 2010. "Correcting poor vitamin D status: do older adults need higher repletion doses of vitamin D3 than younger adults?" Mol Nutr Food Res 54 (8):1077–84. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.200900536.


1. This document is FSHN10-09, one of a series of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date July 2010. Revised December 2013 and January 2017. Visit the EDIS website at
2. Wendy J. Dahl, assistant professor; Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The use of trade names in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information. UF/IFAS does not guarantee or warranty the products named, and references to them in this publication does not signify our approval to the exclusion of other products of suitable composition.