THE JOY OF EATING WELL AND AGING WELL
Senior nutrition: Feeding the body, mind and soul
Remember the old adage, you are what you eat? Make it your motto. When you choose a variety of colorful fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins you’ll feel simply marvelous inside and out.
- Live longer and stronger – Good nutrition keeps muscles, bones, organs, and other body parts strong for the long haul. Eating vitamin-rich food boosts immunity and fights illness-causing toxins. A proper diet reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, bone loss, cancer, and anemia. Also, eating sensibly means consuming fewer calories and more nutrient-dense foods, keeping weight in check.
- Sharpen the mind –Key nutrients are essential for the brain to do its job. People who eat a selection of brightly colored fruit, leafy veggies, and fish and nuts packed with omega-3 fatty acids can improve focus and decrease their risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Feel better –Wholesome meals give you more energy and help you look better, resulting in a self-esteem boost. It’s all connected—when your body feels good you feel happier inside and out.
Remember that balanced nutrition is more than calorie counting. There are many other aspects to creating a nutritious lifestyle.
Senior nutrition: What your body needs
Older adults can feel better immediately and stay healthy for the future by choosing healthy foods. A balanced diet and physical activity contribute to a higher quality of life and enhanced independence as you age.
Senior food pyramid guidelines
Fruit – Focus on whole fruits rather than juices for more fiber and vitamins and aim for around 1 ½ to 2 servings each day. Break the apple and banana rut and go for color-rich pickings like berries or melons.
Veggies – Color is your credo in this category. Choose anti-oxidant rich dark leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli as well as oranges and yellows, such as carrots, squash, and yams. Try for 2 to 2 ½ cups of veggies every day.
Calcium – Aging bone health depends on adequate calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures. Seniors need 1,200 mg of calcium a day through servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese. Non-dairy sources include tofu, broccoli, almonds, and kale.
Grains – Be smart with your carbs and choose whole grains over processed white flour for more nutrients and a higher fiber count. If you’re not sure, look for pasta, breads, and cereals that list “whole” in the ingredient list. Seniors need 6-7 ounces of grains each day (one ounce is about 1 slice of bread).
Protein – Seniors need about .5 grams per pound of bodyweight. Simply divide your bodyweight in half to know how many grams you need. A 130-pound woman will need around 65 grams of protein a day. A serving of tuna, for example, has about 40 grams of protein. Vary your sources with more fish, beans, peas, nuts, eggs, milk, cheese, and seeds.
Important vitamin and minerals
Water – Seniors are prone to dehydration because our bodies lose some of its ability to regulate fluid levels and our sense of thirst is dulled as we age. Post a note in your kitchen reminding you to sip water every hour and with meals to avoid urinary tract infections, constipation, and possibly confusion.
Vitamin B – After 50, your stomach produces less gastric acid making it difficult to absorb vitamin B-12—needed to help keep blood and nerves vital. Get the recommended daily intake (2.4 mcg) of B12 from fortified foods or a vitamin supplement.
Vitamin D – We get most of our vitamin D intake—essential to absorbing calcium—through sun exposure and certain foods (fatty fish, egg yolk, and fortified milk). With age, our skin is less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D, so consult your doctor about supplementing with fortified foods or a multivitamin.
Senior nutrition: Tips for wholesome eating
Once you’ve made friends with nutrient-dense food, your body will feel slow and sluggish if you eat less wholesome fare. Here’s how to get in the habit of eating well.
- Reduce sodium (salt) to help prevent water retention and high blood pressure. Look for the “low sodium” label and season meals with a few grains of course sea salt instead of cooking with salt.
- Enjoy good fats. Reap the rewards of olive oil, avocados, salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, and other monounsaturated fats. The fat from these delicious sources can protect your body against heart disease by controlling “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and raising “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
- Fiber up. Avoid constipation, lower the risk of chronic diseases, and feel fuller longer by increasing fiber intake. Your go-to fiber-foods are raw fruits and veggies, whole-grains, and beans.
- Avoid “bad” carbs. Bad carbohydrates—also known as simple or unhealthy carbs— are foods such as white flour, refined sugar, and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. Bad carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and short-lived energy. For long-lasting energy and stable insulin levels, choose “good” or complex carbs such as whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
- Look for hidden sugar. Added sugar can be hidden in foods such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, pasta sauce, instant mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, fast food, and ketchup. Check food labels for alternate terms for sugar such as corn syrup, molasses, brown rice syrup, cane juice, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, or maltose. Opt for fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned goods, and choose low-carb or sugar-free versions of products such as tortillas, bread, pasta, and ice cream.
- Cook smart. The best way to prepare veggies is by steaming or sautéing in olive oil—it preserves nutrients. Forget boiling—it drains nutrients.
- Put five colors on your plate. Take a tip from Japanese food culture and try to include five colors on your plate. Fruits and veggies rich in color correspond to rich nutrients (think: blackberries, melons, yams, spinach, tomato, zucchini).
Senior Nutrition: Changing dietary needs
Every season of life brings changes and adjustments to your body. Understanding what is happening will help you take control of your nutrition requirements.
- Metabolism. Every year over the age of forty, our metabolism slows. This means that even if you continue to eat the same amount as when you were younger, you're likely to gain weight because you're burning fewer calories. In addition, you may be less physically active. Consult your doctor to decide if you should cut back on calories.
- Weakened senses. Your taste and smell senses diminish with age. Seniors tend to lose sensitivity to salty and bitter tastes first, so you may be inclined to salt your food more heavily than before—even though seniors need less salt than younger people. Use herbs and healthy oils—like olive oil—to season food instead of salt. Similarly, seniors tend to retain the ability to distinguish sweet tastes the longest, leading some to overindulge in sugary foods and snacks. Instead of adding sugar, try increasing sweetness to meals by using naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, or yams.
- Medicines and Illnesses. Prescription medications and illnesses can often negatively influence appetite and may also affect taste, again leading seniors to add too much salt or sugar to their food. Ask your doctor about overcoming side effects of medications or specific physical conditions.
- Digestion. Due to a slowing digestive system, you generate less saliva and stomach acid as you get older, making it more difficult for your body to process certain vitamins and minerals, such as B12, B6 and folic acid, which are necessary to maintain mental alertness, a keen memory and good circulation. Up your fiber intake and talk to your doctor about possible supplements.
- Loneliness and depression. Loneliness and depression affect your diet. For some, feeling down leads to not eating and in others it may trigger overeating. Be aware if emotional problems are affecting your diet, and take action by consulting your doctor or therapist.
- Death or divorce. Newly single seniors may not know how to cook or may not feel like cooking for one. People on limited budgets might have trouble affording a balanced, healthy diet. See the resources below for suggestions on cooking for one and easy, healthy menu selections.
Senior nutrition: Tips for creating a well-balanced diet
Thinking of trading a tired eating regime for a nutrient-dense menu? Good for you! It’s easy and delicious.
Avoid skipping meals – This causes your metabolism to slow down, which leads to feeling sluggish and poorer choices later in the day.
Breakfast – Select high fiber breads and cereals, colorful fruit, and protein to fill you with energy for the day. Try yogurt with muesli and berries, a veggie-packed omelet, peanut-butter on whole grain toast with a citrus salad, or old-fashioned oatmeal made with dried cherries, walnuts, and honey.
Lunch – Keep your body fueled for the afternoon with a variety of whole-grain breads, lean protein, and fiber. Try a veggie quesadilla on a whole-wheat tortilla, veggie stew with whole-wheat noodles, or a quinoa salad with roasted peppers and mozzarella cheese.
Dinner – End the day on a wholesome note. Try warm salads of roasted veggies and a side of crusty brown bread and cheese, grilled salmon with spicy salsa, or whole-wheat pasta with asparagus and shrimp. Opt for sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes and grilled meat instead of fried.
Snacks - It’s okay, even recommended, to snack. But make sure you make it count by choosing high-fiber snacks to healthfully tide you over to your next meal. Choose almonds and raisins instead of chips, and fruit instead of sweets. Other smart snacks include yogurt, cottage cheese, apples and peanut butter, and veggies and hummus.
Senior nutrition: Overcoming obstacles to healthy eating
Let’s face it. There’s a reason why so many seniors have trouble eating nutritiously every day. It’s not always easy! The following tips will help you “speak the language” of good nutrition and help you feel in control.
Say “no” to eating alone
Eating with company can be as important as vitamins. Think about it: a social atmosphere stimulates your mind and helps you enjoy meals. When you enjoy mealtimes, you’re more likely to eat better. If you live alone, eating with company will take some strategizing, but the effort will pay off.
- Make a date to share lunch or dinners with grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, and neighbors on a rotating basis.
- Join in by taking a class, volunteering, or going on an outing, all of which can lead to new friendships and dining buddies.
- Adult day care centers provide both companionship and nutritious meals for seniors who are isolated and lonely, or unable to prepare their own meals.
- Senior meal programs are a great way to meet others. Contact your local Senior Center, YMCA, congregation, or high school and ask about senior meal programs.
Loss of appetite
First, check with your doctor to see if your loss of appetite could be due to medication you're taking, and whether the dosage can be adjusted or changed. Then let the experimenting begin. Try natural flavor enhancers such as olive oil, vinegar, garlic, onions, ginger, and spices.
Make chewing easier by drinking smoothies made with fresh fruit, yogurt, and protein powder. Eat steamed veggies and soft food such as couscous, rice, and yogurt. Consult your dentist to make sure your dentures are properly fitted.
Drink 8 -10 glasses of water each day. Period. Take a drink of water after each bite of food, add sauces and salsas to foods to moisten, avoid commercial mouthwash, and ask your doctor about artificial saliva products.
I don’t like healthy food
If you were raised eating lots of meat and white bread, a new way of eating might sound off-putting. Don’t beat yourself up. Eating healthfully is a new adventure. Start with small steps:
- First and foremost, commit to keeping an open mind.
- Try including a healthy fruit or veggie at every meal.
- Focus on how you feel after eating well – this will help foster new habits and tastes.
Stuck in a rut
Rekindle inspiration by perusing produce at a farmers market, reading a cooking magazine, buying a new-to-you spice, or chatting with friends about what they eat. By making variety a priority, you’ll soon look forward to getting creative with healthy meals.
If you can’t shop or cook for yourself…
There are a number of possibilities, depending on your living situation, finances, and needs:
- Take advantage of home delivery. Many grocery stores have Internet or phone delivery services.
- Swap services. Ask a friend, neighborhood teen, or college student if they would be willing to shop for you.
- Share your home. If you live alone in a large home, consider having a housemate / companion who would be willing to do the grocery shopping and cooking.
- Hire a homemaker. Try to find someone who can do the shopping and meal preparation for you.
Senior nutrition: Tips for staying on track
Healthy eaters have their personal rules for keeping with the program. Here are some to keep in mind.
- Ask for help for your health’s sake. Know when you need a hand to make shopping, cooking, and meal planning assistance.
- Variety, variety, variety! Try eating and cooking something new as soon as boredom strikes.
- Make every meal “do-able.” Healthy eating needn’t be a big production. Keep it simple and you’ll stick with it. Stocking the pantry and fridge with wholesome choices will make “do-able” even easier.
- Set the mealtime mood. Set the table, light candles, play music, or eat outside or by a window when possible. Tidying yourself and your space will help you enjoy the moment.
- Break habits. If you eat watching TV, try eating while reading. If you eat at the counter, curl up to a movie and a slice of veggie pizza.