Eating a well-planned, balanced mix of food every day has many health benefits including reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, bone loss, some kinds of cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and anemia. Equally significant is the fact that if you already have one or more of these chronic diseases, eating well and being physically active may help you better manage them.
As we age, physiological changes occur slowly over time in all body systems. These changes are influenced by life events, illnesses, genetic traits and socioeconomic factors. We lose lean body mass, we can gain weight, we lose bone density.
The loss of lean body mass may be the result of a decrease in metabolism. And the loss of bone density may lead to fractures, and their associated illness and mortality are certainly a concern for the elderly.
Total body fat typically increases with age, often explained by eating too many calories. As we age, fat tends to concentrate in the trunk and as fat deposits around the vital organs. However, in more advanced years, weight often declines.
Nutrition can be a factor in all of the above changes. Calorie needs change due to more body fat and less lean muscle that can be due to less activity and metabolism changes. This decreases our calorie needs. But the challenge for the elderly is to meet the same nutrient needs as when they were younger, yet consume fewer calories.
To avoid gaining weight, we must reduce calorie intake or increase activity. And the answer to this problem is to choose foods high in nutrients in relation to their calories – foods considered “nutrient-dense.”
Reducing the overall fat content in the diet is a reasonable and easy way to cut calories. About 60 percent of calories should come from carbohydrates, with emphasis on complex carbohydrates, which puts less stress on the circulating blood glucose than refined carbohydrates. Such a regime also enhances dietary fiber intake, sources of which include: vegetables, fruits, grain products, cereals, seeds, legumes and nuts.
Protein needs usually do not change for the elderly, although research studies are not definitive. Balancing needs and restrictions is a challenge. Protein absorption may decrease as we age, and our bodies may make less protein. However, this does not mean protein intake should be routinely increased.
Your food choices also affect your digestion, often a problem for seniors. For instance, too little fiber or fluid may cause constipation. Eating more whole-grain foods, fruits and vegetables or drinking more water may help with this issue.
People of all ages need more than 40 nutrients to stay healthy. With age, it becomes more important that diets contain enough calcium, fiber, iron, protein, and the vitamins A, C, D and Folacin. Reduce calories, select nutrient-dense foods, and enjoy smaller portions of foods high in fat, sugar and sodium. Because no one food or pill provides all of the nutrients, eat a variety of foods to get the full spectrum of nutrients.
Variety often is lacking in the diets of seniors, who often eat the same foods over and over again. Get out of this food rut by trying some of these suggestions:
- Eat breakfast foods for lunch or lunch foods for dinner.
- Use color as a guide for variety in a meal. A good meal should provide three distinct colors on the plate.
- Increase the variety of texture in meals. Add whole grain breads (rye, wheat, and pumpernickel), whole grain cereals, and cooked legumes (beans of all types, lentils, dried peas).
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Eating well isn’t just a “diet” or “program” that’s here today and gone tomorrow. It is part of a healthy lifestyle that you can adopt now and stay with in the years to come. Whatever your age, you can start making positive lifestyle changes today. Eating well can help you stay healthy and independent, look and feel good, and create a healthier future.
Sources: J.E. Anderson, Colorado State University Extension foods and nutrition specialist and professor, food science and human nutrition; and S. Prior, former graduate intern, food science and human nutrition.
National Institute of Aging