Nutrition and Aging

Section 10.1: Smell and Taste: Spice of Life

This section includes text excerpted from “How Smell and Taste Change as You Age,” National Institute of Aging (NIA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), August 21, 2017.

Did you know that your sense of smell and taste are connected? As you get older, these senses can change, and you may find that certain foods aren't as flavorful as they used to be. Changes in smell or taste can also be a sign of a larger problem.

Your Sense of Smell

Smell is an important sense. Certain smells, like your dad's cologne, can help you recall a memory. Other smells, like smoke from a fire, can alert you to danger. When you can't smell things you enjoy, like your morning coffee or spring flowers, life may seem dull.

As you get older, your sense of smell may fade. Your sense of smell is closely related to your sense of taste. When you can't smell, food may taste bland. You may even lose interest in eating.

What Causes Loss of Smell?

Many problems cause a loss of smell that lasts for a short time. This temporary loss of smell may be due to:

Some things can cause a long-lasting loss of smell. A head injury, for example, can damage the nerves related to smell.

Sometimes, losing your sense of smell may be a sign of a more serious disorder, such as Parkinson disease or Alzheimer disease. Be sure to tell your doctor about any change in your sense of smell.

Smells Can Keep You Safe

It's important to be aware of odors around you. You need to be able to smell:

Your Sense of Taste

There are tiny taste buds inside your mouth—on your tongue, in your throat, even on the roof of your mouth. What we call “flavor” is based on five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory. Along with how it tastes, how food smells is also part of what makes up its flavor.

When food tastes bland, many people try to improve the flavor by adding more salt or sugar. This may not be healthy for older people, especially if you have medical problems like high blood pressure or diabetes (high blood sugar).

People who have lost some of their sense of taste may not eat the foods they need to stay healthy. This can lead to other issues such as:

Eating food that is good for you is important to your health. If you have a problem with how food tastes, be sure to talk with your doctor.

What Causes Loss of Taste?

Many things can cause you to lose your sense of taste. Most of the time there are ways to help with the problem.

Medications, like antibiotics and pills to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, can sometimes change how food tastes. Some medicines can make your mouth dry. Having a dry mouth can cause food to taste funny and also make it hard to swallow. Talk to your doctor if you think a medicine is affecting your sense of taste. There may be different medicines that you can try. Do not stop taking your medicine.

Gum disease, an infection in your mouth, or issues with your dentures can leave a bad taste in your mouth that changes the way food tastes. Brushing your teeth, flossing, and using mouthwash can help prevent these problems. Talk to your dentist if you have a bad taste in your mouth that won't go away.

Alcohol can alter how food tastes. Cutting back or stopping drinking may help. Smoking can also reduce your sense of taste. Quitting may help.

Cancer Treatments and Taste

People who are having cancer treatments might have a problem with taste. Your sense of taste will often return once treatments stop. Cancer treatments can make food taste bad or “off.” Some say that food tastes metallic. This funny taste may keep some people from eating healthy food. If this happens to you, try to:

Colors and Spices Can Help

If you're having trouble smelling and tasting your food, try adding color and texture to make your food more interesting. For example, try eating brightly colored vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and tomatoes. Also, if your diet allows, flavor your food with a little butter, olive oil, cheese, nuts, or fresh herbs like sage, thyme, or rosemary. To put some zing in your food, add mustard, hot pepper, onions, garlic, ginger, different spices, or lemon or lime juice. Choose foods that look good to you.

Special Doctor for Smell and Taste, an Otolaryngologist

If the foods you enjoy don't smell or taste the way you think they should, talk to your doctor. He or she might suggest you see a specialist who treats people with smell and taste problems. This kind of doctor is called an otolaryngologist, also known as an ENT (which stands for ear, nose, and throat). An otolaryngologist works on problems related to the ear, nose, and throat, as well as the larynx (voice box), mouth, and parts of the neck and face. The doctor may ask:

There are likely ways to help fix the problem. If not, the doctor can help you cope with the changes in smell and taste.

Section 10.2: Choosing Healthy Meals as You Get Older

This section includes text excerpted “Choosing Healthy Meals as You Get Older,” National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), July 23, 2017.

Choosing Healthy Meals as You Get Older: 10 Healthy Eating Tips for People Age 65+

Making healthy food choices is a smart thing to do—no matter how old you are! Your body changes through your 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. Food provides nutrients you need as you age. Use these tips to choose foods for better health at each stage of life.

  1. Drink plenty of liquids. With age, you may lose some of your sense of thirst. Drink water often. Low-fat or fat-free milk or 100 percent juice also helps you stay hydrated. Limit beverages that have lots of added sugars or salt. Learn which liquids are better choices.
  2. Make eating a social event. Meals are more enjoyable when you eat with others. Invite a friend to join you or take part in a potluck at least twice a week. A senior center or place of worship may offer meals that are shared with others. There are many ways to make mealtimes pleasing.
  3. Plan healthy meals. Find trusted nutrition information from and the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Get advice on what to eat, how much to eat, and which foods to choose, all based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Find sensible, flexible ways to choose, and prepare tasty meals so you can eat foods you need.
  4. Know how much to eat. Learn to recognize how much to eat so you can control portion size. My Plate's SuperTracker (

    Section 10.3: Healthy Eating after 50

    This section includes text excerpted from “Healthy Eating—Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging,” National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), July 23, 2017.

    Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging

    If you and your healthcare provider are worried about weight gain, you should choose nutrient-dense foods. These foods give you lots of nutrients without a lot of extra calories.

    On the other hand, foods that are high in calories for the amount of food are called calorie dense. They may or may not have nutrients. High-calorie foods with little nutritional value, like potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, candy, baked goods, and alcoholic beverages, are sometimes called “empty calories.”

    One way to think about the idea of nutrient-dense and calorie-dense foods is to look at a variety of foods that all provide the same calories. Let's say that you wanted to have a snack that contained about 100 calories. You might choose one of these:

    Which would make a better snack for you? Although these examples all have about 100 calories, there are some big differences:

    How Many Calories Do You Need?

    If you are over age 50 and you want to stay at the weight you are now—not lose and not gain, how many calories do you need to eat each day? The Dietary Guidelines suggest:


    Table 10.1. Calorie Chart

    Table 10.1. Calorie Chart

    Physical activity refers to the voluntary movements you do that burn calories. Brisk walking, dancing, and swimming are examples of moderate activity. An active lifestyle might include jogging, singles tennis, or swimming laps.

    Section 10.4: Dietary Supplements

    This section includes text excerpted from “Dietary Supplements,” National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), August 21, 2017.

    What Is a Dietary Supplement? Should I Take a Dietary Supplement?

    Do you need one? Maybe you do, but usually not. Ask yourself why you think you might want to take a dietary supplement. Are you concerned about getting enough nutrients? Is a friend, a neighbor, or someone on a commercial suggesting you take one? Some ads for dietary supplements in magazines or on TV seem to promise that these supplements will make you feel better, keep you from getting sick, or even help you live longer. Sometimes, there is little, if any, good scientific research supporting these claims. Dietary supplements may give you nutrients that might be missing from your daily diet. But eating a variety of healthy foods is the best way to get the nutrients you need. Supplements may cost a lot, could be harmful, or simply might not be helpful. Some supplements can change how medicines you may already be taking will work. You should talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian for advice.

    What If I'm over 50?

    People over 50 may need more of some vitamins and minerals than younger adults do. Your doctor or a dietitian can tell you whether you need to change your diet or take vitamins or minerals to get enough of these:

    Different Vitamin and Mineral Recommendations for People over 50

    The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommends how much of each vitamin and mineral men and women of different ages need. Sometimes, the Academy also tells us how much of a vitamin or mineral is too much.

    When thinking about whether you need more of a vitamin or mineral, think about how much of each nutrient you get from food and drinks, as well as from any supplements you take. Check with a doctor or dietitian to learn whether you need to supplement your diet.

    What Are Antioxidants?

    You might hear about antioxidants in the news. These are natural substances found in food that might help protect you from some diseases. Here are some common sources of antioxidants that you should be sure to include in your diet:

    Right now, research results suggest that large doses of supplements with antioxidants will not prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease or diabetes. In fact, some studies have shown that taking large doses of some antioxidants could be harmful. Again, it is best to check with your doctor before taking a dietary supplement.

    What about Herbal Supplements?

    Herbal supplements are dietary supplements that come from plants. A few that you may have heard of are gingko biloba, ginseng, echinacea, and black cohosh. Researchers are looking at using herbal supplements to prevent or treat some health problems. It's too soon to know if herbal supplements are both safe and useful. But, studies of some have not shown benefits.

    Are Dietary Supplements Safe?

    Scientists are still working to answer this question. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) checks prescription medicines, such as antibiotics or blood pressure medicines, to make sure they are safe and do what they promise. The same is true for over-the-counter drugs like pain and cold medicines. But, the FDA does not consider dietary supplements to be medicines. The FDA does not watch over dietary supplements in the same way it does prescription medicines. The Federal Government does not regularly test what is in dietary supplements. So, just because you see a dietary supplement on a store shelf does not mean it is safe, that it does what the label says it will, or that it contains what the label says it contains.

    If the FDA receives reports of possible problems with a supplement, it will issue warnings about products that are clearly unsafe. The FDA may also take these supplements off the market. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) looks into reports of ads that might misrepresent what dietary supplements do.

    A few private groups, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, , and the Natural Products Association (NPA), have their own “seals of approval” for dietary supplements. To get such a seal, products must be made by following good manufacturing procedures, must contain what is listed on the label, and must not have harmful levels of things that don't belong there, like lead.

    What's Best for Me?

    If you are thinking about using dietary supplements:

    Section 10.5: Overcoming Roadblocks to Eating

    This section includes text excerpted from “Overcoming Roadblocks to Healthy Eating,” National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), July 23, 2017.

    Some common problems, like those listed below, can make it harder for older people to follow through on smart food choices. Here are some problem-solving suggestions.

    Tired of Cooking or Eating Alone?

    Maybe you are tired of planning and cooking dinners every night. Have you considered some potluck meals? If everyone brings one part of the meal, cooking is a lot easier, and there might be leftovers to share. Or try cooking with a friend to make a meal you can enjoy together. Also look into having some meals at a nearby senior center, community center, or religious facility. Not only will you enjoy a free or low-cost meal, but you will have some company while you eat.

    Give Cooking a Try

    It's never too late to learn some cooking skills—or refresh those you might not have used in a while. You can go online to find information on basic cooking techniques and recipes for one person. Borrow simple cookbooks from your local library, or try an adult education cooking course. TV cooking shows might be helpful—they often show you step-by-step how to prepare and cook foods. Some grocery stores are even beginning to have cooking coaches available to answer your cooking questions.

    Problems Chewing Food? Sometimes Hard to Swallow Your Food?

    If food seems to get stuck in your throat, it might be that less saliva in your mouth is making it hard for you to swallow your food. Drinking plenty of liquids with your meal might help. There may be other reasons you are having trouble swallowing your food, including problems with the muscles or nerves in your throat, problems with your esophagus, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Talk to your doctor about what might be causing the problem.

    Food Tastes Different?

    Are foods not as tasty as they used to be? It might not be the cook's fault! Maybe your sense of taste, smell, or both has changed. Growing older can cause your senses to change, but so can a variety of other things such as dental problems or medication side effects. Taste and smell are important for healthy appetite and eating.

    Feeling Sad and Don't Want to Eat?

    Feeling blue now and then is normal, but if you continue to feel sad, ask your doctor for help. Being unhappy can cause a loss of appetite. Help might be available. For example, you might need to talk with someone trained to work with people who are depressed.

    Just Not Hungry? Trouble Getting Enough Calories? Physical Problems Making It Hard to Eat?