It is always a challenge for any person regardless of age to eat right. But for older people, this is especially tough because of the additional problems that prevent them from achieving good nutrition.
Aside from the natural effects of aging, older people have to contend with chronic diseases that further strain their body’s ability to process nutrients. The many medicines for these conditions also affect the appetite of many older people. Metabolism and digestion also slow down and the senses weaken as one ages.
If you are a loved one or caregiver living with a dependent or semi-independent senior, you may have to shoulder the responsibility of preparing nutritious meals and instilling healthy eating habits.
Here are some valuable reminders on how to improve nutrition:
- Drink lots of fluids. Water and other drinks will prevent dehydration which is a major factor in malnutrition. Older people tend to retain less fluid in their bodies and are prone to dehydration. They also feel less thirst and therefore less likely to drink fluids. Ensure that they drink at least one ounce of water per 2.2 pounds of body weight. If you have bladder problems or heart failure, consult your doctor about your optimal water intake.
- Add fiber. Along with drinking ample amounts of water, adding fiber to the diet will prevent constipation, a major complaint among seniors. Fiber helps absorb toxins in the gut and aids in the elimination of waste. It will also make you feel fuller for a longer period, thereby reducing cravings. A fiber-rich diet includes whole grains, cereals, beans, fruits and vegetables. It is better to get fiber from natural sources rather than dietary supplements.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. A good trick is to add color to your selection of fruits and veggies. Instead of the usual apple or banana, try opting for berries, lemons, or mangos instead. For veggies, dark-leafy vegetables (green) such as spinach and broccoli can be alternated or mixed with carrots (orange) and squash (yellow). There is a good variety to choose from and adding different colors can make food more enticing and enjoyable to eat for seniors. The recommended serving size is about 2 to 2.5 cups per serving.
- Cut back on salt and sugar. Sodium (salt) is essential for the body but we usually consume more of it than necessary. Having too much salt in the body can worsen hypertension and fluid retention among seniors. Be wary of products that are high in sodium such as most canned goods and processed foods. Read nutrition labels for sodium content and prefer to use low-sodium products. Eliminate the salt shaker from the table. Use herbs and spices to add flavor to the meals you serve. Avoid sugar-rich foods to limit calories to an acceptable level. Fast food, canned soups and sauces contain hidden sugar.
- Reduce fat intake. Avoid eating foods that are rich in saturated fat which is linked to high blood cholesterol as well as heart disease. This type of fat is found in red meat and poultry products. Trans-fats, present in many fast food and processed products, is likewise linked to poor health and must also be avoided. On the other hand, polyunsaturated fats (omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids) found in fish, flaxseed, and nuts are believed to promote health.
- Consume adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. Older people are more prone to developing anemia and weak bones as well as infections due to a weakened immune system. To reduce the risk, you should serve foods that are rich in iron (meat, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit) and calcium (milk, dairy foods). Zinc (fish, meat) is an immune booster and promotes faster healing. Vitamin D (oily fish, cereals) slows down the rate of bone loss associated with aging, and can be achieved through ample exposure to sunlight or through supplements.
A good diet consists of a balanced amount of nutrients that include fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Preparing meals which are dense in nutrients with just the right amount of calories is recommended for older people. They should also avoid eating foods that are rich in saturated fats.
Choosing nutritious meals will reduce the risk of osteoporosis, heart problems, hypertension and cancer among the elderly population. The tips outlined here can help you decide on picking the most nutritious food options for your loved one.
Talk to a doctor or registered dietitian about a meal plan. If you need help in securing low-cost or free meals in your community, contact Meals on Wheels Association of America or Food Assistance Programs.
Local home care services can also provide you valuable assistance.