As seniors age they typically become less active and their metabolisms slow. As a result, they require fewer calories. But their need for essential, health-promoting vitamins and minerals does not decline. If anything, it increases.
In other words, seniors’ smaller meals need to be:
- Heavy on nutritionally-rich foods that help fuel good health, disease prevention and symptom control of chronic diseases, and;
- Light on the “empty” calories of processed foods that have limited nutritional value
This need is reflected in a modified food pyramid developed for older adults. First published in the January 2008 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, it resulted from a study supported by a grant from the Ross Initiative on Aging at Tufts University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Based on an estimated daily energy intake of 1,200 to 1,600 calories for persons 70 and older, the pyramid emphasizes a “nutrient dense” diet of whole grain foods, varied colored fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats, fish and poultry. The Tufts study also found that seniors should check with their primary care provider to see if they need dietary supplements for calcium, magnesium, and vitamins B12 and D, as they may not be getting an adequate supply from their diet.
With age, we lose the ability to properly absorb B12. And seniors are commonly deficient in Vitamin D as they drink less milk and get less sunlight. Unlike the standard USDA Food Guide Pyramid, which is anchored by grain foods, the senior pyramid floats on a foundation of water. As seniors experience a decline in the thirst sensation, dehydration is a common problem. The modified pyramid advises seniors to drink eight or more eight-ounce glasses of water daily to avoid dehydration, kidney dysfunction and constipation. Some medications also affect hydration. Food and beverages with high water content, such as lettuce, vegetable juice and soups, also help satisfy this requirement.
The senior pyramid also emphasizes the important role of physical activities that are within the capability of many older adults, such as walking, yard work and swimming. Exercise stimulates appetite, helps alleviate depression and strengthens muscles and bones. Before beginning a new exercise routine, however, seniors should check with their physicians.
Following are other tips for healthful, nutrient-rich eating for seniors:
- Choose whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, rolled oats and barley. Avoid refined white flour or white rice.
- Spice up bland food to make it more appetizing. Try lemon juice, herbs and spices.
- Enrich foods to boost nutrition. For instance, spread peanut butter on toast or crackers, or add cheese, lean meat and extra veggies to sandwiches, soups, rice and noodles.
- Snack healthfully. This is especially helpful for seniors who have small appetites and need an energy boost between meals. Examples of healthful snacking: bite-sized pieces of cheese, crackers, peanut butter or a piece of fruit. For those who cannot eat enough to maintain or gain weight, meal replacement drinks, such as Ensure® or Boost® provide complete nutrition.
- Eat raw vegetables and fruits. Try to eat at least one raw serving a day. Raw fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and enzymes to aid digestion. Cut into small pieces or grate and add to other dishes, if biting or chewing is a problem.
- Choose lean protein and calcium-rich dairy. Fish, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts and tofu are good choices for protein. Limit red meat and cured meats like bacon and ham. Low-fat milk, cheese, cottage cheese and yogurt provide calcium. Use butter, cream cheese and cream sparingly. If lactose-intolerant, try a calcium supplement.