A nutritious diet is especially important for seniors’ health. That is because a variety of factors puts older adults at greater risk of malnutrition, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. These factors include chronic disease, physical disability, isolation, limited income and medications that limit nutrient absorption.
Seniors require about 25 percent fewer calories than younger adults, so it is important that the calories they take in are rich in essential vitamins and minerals. For seniors, the key is efficient eating—dining on foods that maximize nutritional value, and not calories.
Good Eating Has Its Advantages for Seniors
Healthful eating makes a big difference in the well-being of seniors, says the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health (www.nia.nih.gov).
The benefits of nutrition for seniors can include:
- Greater energy and improved feeling of wellness, as nutritious food provides the needed calories and nutrients to get through the day
- Greater longevity
- Strengthened immune system and protection against illness
- Reduced incidence of mood swings and depression
- Increased mental focus
- Reduced risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol
- Lessened risk of diabetes
- Decreased risk of some forms of cancer
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Greater control of weight by concentrating on nutrient-rich foods that are more filling than “empty calorie” foods that lack essential vitamins and minerals
- Younger, healthier looking skin
- Improved digestion and regularity, through consumption of whole-grain foods, fruits and vegetables and water
The effects of poor nutrition build up over time, and can lead to fatigue and a weakened immune system. This can leave seniors vulnerable to pneumonia and other serious infections, and increase the risk of death.
The Best Food Choices for Seniors
Foods with high nutrient density include 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.
The Dieticians of Canada recommends a diet that is low in saturated fats and contains five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. The CDC’s www.FruitsandVeggiesMatter.gov Web site includes a tool to help determine recommended consumption of fruits, vegetables and calories based on age, sex and activity level.
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 an improved diet can extend a person’s life span 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: Some experts believe that over time our bodies lose the ability to use protein, so we need more of it in our later years. Protein helps seniors maintain body tissues, the immune system and muscle mass. The IFIC suggests that seniors stretch 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: Certain medications and age-related changes interfere with absorption and retention of these nutrients. So, seniors generally need more of them.
- Calcium strengthens teeth and bones–reducing the risk of developing 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, helps limit the growth of colon cancer cells and helps control blood pressure.
- Vitamin D helps calcium function to its fullest extent. Senior 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 absorption declines with age and can be affected by some medications. This vitamin plays an important role in immune system function, metabolism of food and formation of red blood cells. Low B6 and folate levels 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 is another vitamin lacking in seniors’ diets. It can be found in fortified cereals, lean meat and some fish and seafood.
Seniors Need to Stay Hydrated
Water is another key to optimal senior health. Seniors tend to be less sensitive to thirst, so 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 high in water content can help fulfill this need. These include melons, grapes, cucumbers, onions, apples, cabbage and soup.
For more information…
- The National Institute on Aging’s online guide “Healthy Eating After 50” atwww.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/HealthyEating.htm.
- The Dietitians Of Canada’s publication: Senior Friendly Ideas for Healthy Eating” at http://www.dietitians.ca/resources/seniorfriendly11.pdf