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What to Eat for Weak Legs in Elderly? A Dietitian’s Expert Recommendations
Michelle Saari MSc, RD

Fact Checked And Reviewed By Adrian White, Certified Herbalist

By Michelle Saari MSc, RD, Registered Dietitian

Published On June 5, 2024

Geriatric Nutrition

What to Eat for Weak Legs in Elderly? A Dietitian’s Expert Recommendations

Muscle weakness in the legs is a common challenge for elderly individuals, significantly impacting their mobility and quality of life. It can be difficult to know what to eat for weak legs in the elderly. But I’ve got the answer for you! This condition not only restricts their ability to perform daily activities but also increases the risk of falls and related injuries. A well-balanced diet rich in specific nutrients can play a crucial role in mitigating these issues.

Maintaining good muscle tone in the elderly is important for maintaining quality of life, maintaining independence, and reducing fracture risks. With nearly a decade of experience as a Registered Dietitian specializing in elderly nutrition, I have extensive knowledge of the dietary elements crucial for maintaining strong, healthy legs as you age.

We all know that maintaining muscle requires exercise, but it also involves key diet components.  If you’re suffering from weak legs or someone you love, then this article will help you build a healthy meal plan to promote muscle strength.

Top Essential Nutrients for Muscle Health

Protein is the most essential nutrient for someone wanting to build muscle.  Protein is made up of amino acids which are essential to build muscle health in seniors especially.

Essential Nutrients for Muscle Health
Source: Pexels

In older adults the minimum amount of protein they should have is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but for optimal health they should have as much as 1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram of protein of body weight.  

Specific nutrients can also promote muscle health in seniors as well.  Vitamin D and Calcium promote good bone health which can reduce the risk of fractures in older adults.  

Magnesium has also been shown to promote healthy muscles in seniors.  The current recommendations are approximately 420 milligrams for men and 320 milligrams for women.  

Before starting any vitamin or supplement you should consult with your Doctor.

Current dietary research supports the inclusion of these nutrients as part of a strategic approach to combat the natural muscle loss seen in the elderly, known as sarcopenia. Ensuring adequate intake of these essential nutrients helps maintain muscle function and overall physical health, enabling seniors to lead a more active lifestyle.

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Dietary Guidelines for Older Adults

Dietary Guidelines for Older Adults
Source: Pexels

As individuals age, their nutritional needs change, necessitating a tailored approach to their diet. For seniors, especially those experiencing muscle weakness, it’s crucial to maintain a balanced intake of macronutrients proteins, carbohydrates, and fats while also ensuring proper hydration.

Dietitians recommendations for elderly healthy eating is to try to focus each meal and snack to include protein.  This can help to promote a diet for weak legs to improve muscle health in seniors.  

Proteins are vital for muscle repair and should be included in each meal. The recommended daily intake is approximately 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This helps in maintaining muscle mass and preventing sarcopenia.

Proteins
Source: Verywell Health

Carbohydrates should come from complex sources like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, which provide sustained energy and fiber. These help in maintaining energy levels throughout the day without causing spikes in blood sugar levels.

Carbohydrates
Source: Health

Fats should be included but in a controlled manner, focusing on healthy fats from sources like olive oil, avocados, and nuts, which support cardiovascular health without contributing to cholesterol build-up.

Fats
Source: Doctor Kiltz

Hydration is another critical area as elderly individuals often experience reduced thirst sensation leading to inadequate fluid intake, which can exacerbate health issues and affect overall bodily functions. Seniors are advised to consume at least 1.7 liters of water per day, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

Hydration
Source: Loving Life

Seniors should include a variety of foods that include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins.  At each meal and snack ensuring that there is a source of protein, whole grains for fibre and fruits or vegetables, they can ensure they are eating a nutritious diet.

Having enough fluids throughout the day, preferably water, can help to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections, dehydration, and other health complications.  

Limiting the amount of added sugars, saturated fat, and excess sodium, can help to ensure you have room for nutrients that promote muscle growth.  

If you have questions or need ideas on healthy eating for older adults it’s best to consult with a Registered Dietitian for a personalised plan.

Meal Planning and Tips

Meal Planning and Tips
Source: Shutterstock

Ensuring that you have 3 meals per day along with 2 snacks per day can help to achieve meeting daily recommendations. Planning your meals a few days at a time can help to have well-planned and healthy meals.

Breakfast

  • Oatmeal is made with milk (for added protein and calcium) and topped with berries (for antioxidants and vitamins).
Oatmeal
Source: NYT Cooking
  • A glass of fortified orange juice (for vitamin C and additional vitamins).
fortified orange juice
Source: Healthline

Lunch

  • Grilled chicken breast (a great source of lean protein).
Grilled chicken breast
Source: Once Upon A Chef
  • A side of steamed broccoli (rich in vitamins K and C, and fiber).
steamed broccoli
Source: Fine and Wine
  • Whole grain roll (for complex carbohydrates).
Whole grain roll
Source: JoyFood Sunshine

Dinner

  • Baked salmon (rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids).
Baked salmon
Source: Delish
  • Quinoa salad with mixed vegetables like bell peppers and spinach (provides fiber, vitamins, and a wholesome grain).
Quinoa salad
Source: Love and Lemons
  • Sweet potato (for beta-carotene and complex carbs).
Sweet potato
Source: Eating Well

Snacks

  • Greek yogurt with a sprinkle of nuts (for protein, calcium, and healthy fats).
Greek yogurt
Source: Healthline
  • Apple slices with almond butter (for a satisfying crunch with a protein boost).
Apple slices
Source: The Spruce Eats

An example of a healthy breakfast could include a bowl of oatmeal, chopped up strawberries, and mixed in natural peanut butter, with a glass of milk.

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This meal provides a healthy mixture of whole grains, fibre, healthy fats, and protein.  This is both a nutritionally dense meal and delicious!

Foods to Include and Avoid

Foods to Include and Avoid
Shutterstock

Foods that are very beneficial to older adults to reduce weak legs include healthy proteins such as eggs, chicken, and beef.  These options provide Vitamin B12, essential amino acids, and other nutrients that promote muscle growth.

Foods to Include

  1. Lean Proteins: Essential for muscle repair and growth. Include chicken, turkey, fish, and plant-based proteins like beans and lentils.
Lean Proteins:
Source: Trifecta

2. Dairy Products: Rich in calcium and vitamin D, crucial for bone health. Opt for low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Dairy Products
Source: Harvard Health

3. Whole Grains: Provide sustained energy and are high in fiber. Examples include quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat.

Whole Grains
Source: Eating Well

4. Fruits and Vegetables: High in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Focus on colorful vegetables and fruits like spinach, carrots, berries, and oranges.

Fruits and Vegetables
Source: Harvard Health

5. Nuts and Seeds: Source of healthy fats and proteins. Include almonds, walnuts, and flaxseeds.

Nuts and Seeds
Source: Getty Images

Foods to Avoid or Limit

  1. High-Sodium Foods: This can lead to hypertension and cardiovascular issues. Limit intake of processed meats, canned soups, and snacks.
High-Sodium Foods
Source: OnlyMyHealth

2. Sugary Foods and Drinks: Can lead to energy spikes and crashes. Avoid sugary cereals, sodas, and desserts.

Sugary Foods and Drinks
Source: Dr. Smile

3. High-Fat Meats: This can exacerbate inflammation and are hard to digest. Reduce intake of bacon, sausages, and fatty cuts of meat.

 High-Fat Meats
Source: Eat This Not That

4. Alcohol: Can interfere with muscle growth and lead to bone density loss. Limit or avoid alcohol consumption.

Alcohol
Source: Healthline

While there is nothing wrong with having treats, you should ensure that you avoid having too many treats with added sugar.  Foods high in added sugars can take away room for a healthy diet.  They can also contribute to high blood sugars, hypertension, and weight gain.

Role of Physical Activity

Role of Physical Activity
Shutterstock

Diet plays an important part in reducing weak legs in the elderly, but physical activity can also help.  Engaging in some type of physical activity such as walking or swimming for 30 minutes daily can build and maintain muscle.

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Safe and Beneficial Exercises for the Elderly

  1. Walking: A gentle, low-impact activity that improves cardiovascular health and leg strength.
  2. Strength Training: Using light weights or resistance bands to maintain or increase muscle mass and strength.
  3. Tai Chi: Enhances balance and mental well-being.
  4. Water Aerobics: Provides resistance training with minimal joint strain, ideal for those with arthritis or limited mobility.

It’s important before starting any exercise regimen to consult with your Doctor based on your personal health conditions.

Practical Dietary Tips for Everyday Meals

When preparing meals for the elderly, especially those experiencing muscle weakness in their legs, it’s crucial to focus on making each meal both nutritious and appealing. Here are some practical tips to enhance meal quality and enjoyment:

  1. Meal Frequency and Size: Opt for smaller, more frequent meals rather than three large ones. This can help maintain steady energy levels throughout the day and prevent the feeling of heaviness or bloating that can discourage eating.
  2. Easy-to-Eat Foods: Prepare foods that are easy to chew and swallow. Soft-cooked vegetables, tender meats, and creamy casseroles are excellent options. Avoid tough, fibrous, or overly dry foods.
  3. Enhance Flavors: Enhance the appeal of dishes through the use of herbs, spices, and flavor enhancers like lemon juice or vinegar to make meals more enticing without adding excessive salt or sugar.
  4. Visual Appeal: Serve meals that look appealing, using colorful foods and garnishes to make the dishes more visually attractive. Eating is a sensory experience, and a well-presented plate can stimulate appetite.
  5. Interactive Meals: Encourage the elderly to be involved in meal planning or preparation if possible. This engagement can make eating a more interesting and fulfilling activity.
  6. Comfort Foods: Incorporate familiar and favorite foods into their diet to provide comfort and improve food intake. Comfort foods can be adapted to be healthier with minor tweaks without sacrificing taste.

Conclusion

Having a healthy diet to promote muscle health in seniors includes having protein at approximately 1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight daily.  Also having a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and proteins, can ensure that you meet your daily nutrient requirements.

As approved by your Doctor, including supplements such as Vitamin D, Calcium and Magnesium can help to promote muscle and bone health.  This can help to reduce weak legs in the elderly.

Engaging in physical activity daily can help to maintain muscle and reduce the risk of Sarcopenia, fractures, and weakness as you age.

Sources

  • https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/nutrition/Nutrition-Needs_Protein_FINAL-2.18.20_508.pdf
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10745813/#:~:text=Given%20the%20age%2Drelated%20decline,and%20sarcopenia%20in%20elderly%20individuals.
  • https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/tips-for-healthy-eating/seniors/
  • https://zoe.com/learn/muscle-building-and-aging#
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Michelle Saari MSc, RD

Written By

Michelle Saari MSc, RD

Registered Dietitian

Michelle Saari is a Registered Dietitian based in Canada. She has a Master's Degree in Human Nutritional Sciences and is a passionate advocate for spreading easy to understand, reliable, and trustworthy nutrition information. She is currently a full-time blogger with two elderly nutrition-focused health blogs.

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