The importance of good nutrition spans the generations, but as we age, our dietary requirements change. For one thing, seniors need roughly 25 percent fewer calories than younger adults. However, as the quantity declines, the quality of calories consumed by seniors needs to rise to the occasion.
The third National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES III)—conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—reveals that seniors are at particular risk of insufficient nutrition, the result of many factors including chronic disease, physical disability, isolation, limited income and medications that limit absorption of nutrients from food.
Because of factors like these, seniors need to concentrate on eating foods with a high nutrient density—that is, whole, natural, fresh foods that are packed with essential nutrients and fiber, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, healthy sources of protein and low-fat dairy products. In contrast, highly processed foods generally contain more calories but fewer nutrients, leaving people hungry after eating them. Health Canada, in their publication,Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating a variety of foods from all 4 food groups (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php).
Health Canada further recommends a diet that is low in saturated fats and contains five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day (visit Health Canada’s Web site that includes a tool that determines recommended consumption of fruit, vegetables and calories based on your age, sex and activity level: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/myguide-monguide/index-eng.php).
The CDC reports that less than one-third of adults 65 years and older meet its “5 A Day” recommendation for fruit and vegetable consumption, despite the fact that improved diet promises to extend the productive life span of North Americans and reduce the incidence of chronic illness such as heart disease, stroke, some types of cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis.
Special Nutritional Needs of Seniors
Seniors require substantially greater Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) of certain key nutrients than younger adults. The International Food Information Council (IFIC – www.ific.org) reports that these nutrients include:
Protein: It isn’t just for growing bodies. Protein helps seniors maintain body tissues, the immune system and muscle mass. Some experts believe seniors are unable to use protein as efficiently as they could in their younger days, so they need more of it now. The IFIC suggests that seniors extend their protein budget by minimizing meat, poultry and fish portions while filling in with more economical protein sources such as legumes, eggs, peanut butter and low-fat dairy products.
Calcium and Vitamin D: Most seniors don’t consume enough calcium and Vitamin D. On top of that, certain medications and physiological changes interfere with their absorption and retention. So, the recommended intake of these two nutrients is higher for seniors.
Calcium strengthens teeth and bones—preventing osteoporosis—and promotes contraction and relaxation of muscles, including the heart muscle; blood clotting; and production of new cells and body tissues. It also decreases the risk of kidney stones, limits the growth of colon cancer cells and controls blood pressure.
Vitamin D plays a supporting role, helping calcium function to its fullest extent. Seniors who have difficulty tolerating dairy products—a rich source of calcium and Vitamin D—can strive to optimize their intake of it by drinking smaller amounts, drinking reduced-lactose milk, taking lactase enzyme tablets and eating yogurt with live, active cultures.
Vitamin B6: B6 plays an important role in immune system function, assisting metabolism of food and formation of red blood cells. It has been documented to decline with age and can be adversely affected by some medications.
The consequences of low B6 and folate levels can be critical as they have been associated with increased levels of homocysteine, a significant marker of coronary artery disease and stroke. B6 is provided by bananas, whole-wheat bread, chicken, eggs, oatmeal, peanut butter, pork, potatoes, brown rice, tuna, shellfish and walnuts. Vitamin B12 also is another vitamin lacking in seniors’ diets and can be found in fortified cereals, lean meat and some fish and seafood.
Staying Hydrated is Critical for Seniors
Another key to optimal senior health is water. As seniors grow less sensitive to thirst, they need to make a point of consuming enough water each day—eight 8-ounce glasses. Proper hydration helps flush toxins from the body, maintain flexibility in the joints, relieve constipation, and maintain mental focus.
Foods with a high water content can help fulfill this need. These include melons, grapes, cucumbers, onions, apples, cabbage and soup.