By Lorna G. Williams
If you are over the age of 65, you are part of one of the fastest growing segments of the American population. This age group now makes up a little over 20% of our society. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the year 2030, the number of older adults will exceed the number of children. Even if you do not find yourself in this age group, you may very well find yourself responsible for the care of an older parent or loved one. Good nutrition remains important throughout life, but may be even more important during our later years. Good nutrition in later years can help lessen the effects of the diseases prevalent among older Americans and may also improve the quality of life of those with such diseases. Some of the diseases that plague the elderly include osteoporosis, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, gastrointestinal problems, and chronic under-nutrition.
Many older people find it difficult to eat well for a variety of reasons. As one grows older, he may need less energy (fewer calories) from the food he eats, but he still needs just as many of the nutrients found in the food. As we age, our lifestyles may become less active. The body’s metabolism tends to become less efficient or slower with age. These lifestyle and metabolism changes may cause weight gain and less efficient absorption of nutrients. Additionally, the elderly sometimes lose some of their ability to taste, smell, and see. This may make food less appealing, thereby diminishing the desire to eat properly. There may be greater difficulty involved in the tasks of shopping for groceries and preparing meals due to illness, arthritis, limited mobility or loss of sight. The loss of teeth may make it difficult to chew foods. Physical ailments and medications may require dietary changes and special eating programs. Digestive ailments may call for foods that are less highly seasoned. Emotional factors such as depression and loneliness often affect the diet. Sometimes it is simply a matter of money – often those on limited incomes do not have enough money to purchase the quality foods that they need. Despite these factors, it is important to remember that people of any age are healthier if they are well nourished. Well-nourished older people tend to feel better in general, recover faster from illnesses, spend less time in the hospital, and can possibly live independently longer than older people who don’t eat well.
Since nutritional needs do change as we age, it is necessary to review one’s diet periodically – especially if certain medical conditions are present. Medical and nutrition professionals can help assess one’s nutritional
needs and make suggestions for meeting those needs. In general, some important guidelines for senior nutrition include:
• Reduce sodium (salt) intake to help prevent water retention and high blood pressure
• Monitor fat intake in order to maintain healthy cholesterol levels
• Consume more calcium and vitamin D for bone health
• Eat more fiber-rich foods to prevent constipation and other digestive ailments
• Cut back on sugar and on dry foods
• Make sure that recommended amounts of important vitamins and minerals are being consumed
• Increase water intake
• Participate in regular physical activity
Choice nutrient-dense foods are those that are low in fat and sodium, high in fiber and calcium, with a moderate calorie content. Foods that are flavorful, easy to chew, swallow, and digest, as well as easy to prepare, and appealing to the eye will help to ensure that seniors get the nutrients they need. The following are more specific tips to help control calories while making good food choices. Focus on “good” carbohydrates. Choose whole grains instead of refined “white” products. Raw foods provide roughage. Try to eat at least one daily serving of fruits and vegetables in a raw state. Steaming is the best way to cook vegetables because it preserves the nutrients in the foods. Choose lean sources of protein such as fish, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts and tofu. Remove the skin and visible fat from meats before cooking. Go easy on red meats which contain saturated fat, and also on salty meats such as bacon or ham. Remember to get adequate amounts of calcium in the diet. Many products, including fruit juices, are now available with calcium fortification. Supplements may also be advisable to help supply the additional need for calcium. Select “good” fats such as olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil. Avoid animal fats and hydrogenated fats such as shortening. Keep your food moist. In addition to drinking enough water each day, aim to eat foods with high water content. Staying properly hydrated flushes toxins from the body, relieves constipation, helps keep joints flexible, and clears the mind. Rather than adding salt, season foods with olive oil, vinegar, garlic, onions, and spices. Choose a wide variety of foods to keep mealtime interesting and encourage proper eating habits.
As we age, our relationship to food changes along with our bodies. This makes it even more critical to choose foods wisely. Poor nutrition can prolong recovery from illnesses, and lead to a poorer quality of life. On the other hand, maintaining a healthy diet can give increased mental clarity, increased resistance to disease and illness, higher energy levels, a stronger immune system, faster recuperation times, and better management of chronic health problems. All of this contributes to a higher quality of life, enabling older people to maintain their independence. In later life, eating well can be the key to staying mentally sharp, emotionally balanced and energetic, with a strong immune system and a happy, positive outlook on life.