Eating can be one of the most pleasurable and sociable parts of the day for seniors, or it can be frustrating and unfulfilling. Even the most active people slow down as they age and can develop food allergies and other difficulties with eating. But the bottom line is: along with exercise, healthy eating is vital for all of us, especially as we age.
Don’t worry, healthy foods are readily available, and finding and preparing them is not rocket science! Take note of the following tips for eating well as we age* (recommended amounts in parentheses are per day):
- Whole grains — eat the whole thing! (approximately 5 to 10 ounces = one roll, slice of bread, small muffin, ½ cup cooked rice or pasta, or one cup of ready-to-eat cereal). Remember to look for "whole grains" and avoid added refined sugars and corn syrup.
- Vary vegetables (2 to 3-½ cups). Choose a variety of colors and types of vegetables. Some of the best vegetables include green, leafy lettuces such as spinach, arugula and baby greens, green beans, yellow squash, red, yellow, and orange peppers, cucumbers, or broccoli. Often vegetables are pre-cut for easy eating — vegetables don’t have to be a chore!
- Don’t forget the dairy (equivalent of 3 cups of milk). 1 cup of yogurt, 1-½ to 2 ounces of cheese, and 2 cups of cottage cheese all equal 1 cup of milk. If your parent is lactose intolerant, then look for lactose-free choices or soy milk, available in most supermarkets.
- Proteins pump you up: meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts (5 to 7 ounces of lean meat, poultry or fish). 1 cup of cooked beans or tofu, 1 egg, ½ ounce nuts or seeds, or one tablespoon of peanut butter can count as one ounce of meat. All are excellent sources of protein.
- Flush your body with fluids. Hydration is essential, especially as we age. Your elderly parent must drink water every day, but also encourage him or her to drink juice, milk and soups to maintain hydration. Have them keep a bottle of water nearby at all times, and take a few sips here and there. Aging can actually cause you to lose some of your sense of thirst, so it can be dangerous for your parent to rely on his or her thirst for their hydration cue. As with everything, use moderation and consult your parent’s doctor if they have urinary problems.
- Find the fiber (The recommended dietary fiber intake is 14 grams per 1,000 calories consumed). Fiber can help you avoid intestinal problems and may lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. If your parent is eating a healthy diet of whole grains and vegetables, he or she is already consuming a good amount of fiber. It’s found naturally in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, brown rice, and whole grains. If your mom or dad is just starting a new healthy eating routine, make sure they add fiber slowly to their diet — adding it too fast could cause stomach discomfort. Ways to add fiber to your parent’s diet include: leaving skins on fruits and vegetables; eating whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juice; eating beans, peas, and lentils; and choosing whole grain breads and cereals.
- The salt shake-up (Aim to consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, and meet the potassium recommendation of 4,700 mg/day with food). Scientifically known as Sodium Chloride (NaCl — if you remember from fourth grade science class), and while too much can affect our blood pressure, some sodium is necessary to maintain good health in our blood, muscles and nerves. Sodium is found naturally in most foods and it’s added to many canned and prepared foods. So before taking out the shaker, read food labels. If your parent has been a salt junkie his or her whole life but now needs to cut back for health reasons, then try spices, herbs, and lemon juice to add flavor. Also, if you want to encourage your parent to try to counteract the body’s sodium level the natural way, have him or her eat more foods that contain potassium, like leafy green vegetables, bananas, and root vegetables like potatoes. If your parent suffers from high blood pressure, be sure to get the doctor’s recommendation for sodium intake.
- Fat is our friend (Consume less than 10% of calories from saturated fatty acids and less than 300 mg/day of cholesterol, and keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible). We all want to hear that fat is OK — and it is, of course, in moderation like anything else. A healthy amount of fat in our diet helps us with certain vitamins and some energy. But be sure your parent is eating the right fats — those that are unsaturated and healthier choices such as olive oil. Yes, fat is high in calories and too much can harm the heart and blood vessels. If your parent has heart disease or serious weight issues, then try some of the following ideas: choose lean meats with skin removed; use lower-fat dairy products and salad dressings; try nonfat cooking spray instead of butter or oil; don’t fry — broil, roast, bake, steam, microwave or boil instead; season foods with herbs, spices and lemon juice instead of butter. As with salt, if your elderly parent has health issues that may be complicated by inappropriate fat intake, make sure they follow their doctor’s dietary recommendations.
Vitamin B12: Although a substantial proportion of individuals over age 50 have reduced ability to absorb naturally occurring vitamin B12, they are able to absorb the crystalline form. Thus, all individuals over the age of 50 should be encouraged to meet their Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) (2.4g/day) for vitamin B12 by eating foods fortified with vitamin B12 such as fortified cereals, or by taking the crystalline form of vitamin B12 supplements.
*These recommendations are based on the USDA guidelines for the "average" older person but you should always check with your doctor or dietician if you have special needs regarding foods, such as high cholesterol, diverticulitis, thyroid problems, diabetes or any other food–related issues.