Better healthcare has provided many people with a longer life expectancy, and nutrition is a big part of keeping people healthy as they age into their golden years.
As we age, our activity levels decline as bones start to creak and muscles ache. Many adults lose precious muscle mass as they grow older. This decrease in muscle leads to a slower metabolism. Unless we pay close attention to incoming calories, the result is weight gain in the form of extra fat stored on the body.
Because nutrient needs don't change very much but calorie needs decrease, it is important for seniors to choose nutrient-dense foods to get the most bang for their nourishment buck.
Appetite and Weight Loss
Many seniors experience a decrease in appetite, which leads to eating less. For most this is a natural occurrence and is not a problem, but for some a decreased appetite can lead to malnutrition and significant health problems. If you have lost weight unintentionally, check with your physician to see if there is a more serious health condition to be concerned about.
As we age, we become more susceptible to chronic health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and osteoporosis. How we eat can either prevent and ease or increase the risk for and exacerbate these conditions. Paying close attention to diet can prolong and improve quantity and quality of life for those living with certain medical conditions.
If diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance is a problem, avoid excess sugars and be sure not to skip meals or snacks. Following a regular schedule of eating light and often helps the body know when to expect food and keeps glucose under better control.
Some older adults become sensitive to foods such as onions and peppers, dairy products, or spicy foods. Be aware of how certain foods make you feel, and make adjustments as needed. If an entire food group becomes a problem, make sure you get the nutrients found in that group from other foods. For example, if you find that you cannot drink milk anymore, try lactose-free milk, yogurt, cheese, or calcium-fortified foods instead.
Along with medical conditions come medications to control symptoms and progression of diseases. Medications can affect appetite in some cases and can also mix poorly with certain foods and nutritional supplements. Read pamphlet information carefully so you know how to eat while taking any medications.
Losing a spouse or other family members can leave seniors without a regular eating schedule. Depression can result from loss of social interaction, which can affect appetite as well. Many seniors find themselves needing to cook and prepare food for the first time in a long time, or even for the first time in their lives. Some seniors simply may choose not to eat rather than go through the hassle of cooking a meal for one.
The immune system weakens with age, so following proper food safety techniques at home and in restaurants will prevent illness due to contamination.
With careful attention to nutrition as we age, we can face the golden years with good health and strength.
This May Help
Focus on Nutrient Rich Foods
As you age, your caloric needs decrease but nutrient needs stay the same or increase. Eating nutrient rich foods will assist in getting the vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats that are necessary. These include:
- dark-colored fruits and vegetables
- lean meats or protein
- low-fat dairy
- whole grains
Make Every Calorie Count
Limit foods without a lot of nutritional value because they add calories without providing nutrition.
The signal your body gives you for thirst can diminish as you age, so make sure to remind yourself to drink fluids on a regular basis. Aim for eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily. You can also get fluid from water-rich fruits and vegetables to assist in total fluid intake.
Include fiber rich foods at every meal. Focus on getting the following into your diet more regularly:
- whole grains
Especially focus on soluble fiber to help cholesterol levels. Some examples of foods with high levels of soluble fiber are:
- oat bran
Some nutrients are difficult to get in the diet and are more difficult to absorb for older adults. Consider taking the following nutrients as a supplement: Calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12
Regular physical activity can help prevent weight gain and reduce risk of chronic diseases. It can also keep joints mobile and muscles strong.
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Decrease in Appetite
Many older adults experience a decrease in appetite that, if unchecked, can lead to malnourishment and unintended weight-loss. If you experiencing loss of appetite or unintentional weight loss, talk to your doctor immediately.
Some medications may interfere with certain foods, while others might increase or decrease appetite. Ask your pharmacist or doctor about potential side effects before beginning any new medication.
Seniors have their own set of dental and oral health concerns. For example, dentures that don't fit properly may lead to poor intake of food and malnutrition. Infections of the mouth can lead to systemic infections.
Preparing meals for one person takes adjustment. While you may end up relying on convenience foods, try to make sure they are nutritious. Focus on:
- Frozen vegetables
- individual containers of canned fruit
- prepared lean meat (grilled chicken breast in strips)
- convenience packs of whole grains (pouches of brown rice)
When you can, eat with friends and family to enjoy the social interaction at mealtime
Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Sugar, and Sodium
Ready all labels carefully to limit or avoid "junk" foods that do not have nutritional value but are high in calories or sodium.
Healthy eating is important throughout the entire lifespan, and especially as we age. Chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes can be controlled for seniors who stay active and fill their plates with nutrient rich, lower calorie foods.