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Senior Nutrition 101: What You Need For A Healthy Diet

Diet studies and nutrition research are constantly in the news and many times they assume that we all understand the difference between good fats and bad fats or high glycemic and low glycemic foods. For seniors, whose nutritional needs change with age, and for their caregivers, understanding nutrition is important, and it really does not need to be that hard to eat a healthy diet.

"Because of all the factors that can impact a senior’s appetite, it is very important to make sure that they use their appetite correctly and that they get a diet that is heavy in nutrients."— Professor Joan Salge Blake

"Seniors need fewer calories as they age, but they need more nutrition. Because they tend to eat less, what they eat becomes more important," says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, registered dietitian and nutrition professor at Boston University.

Senior Nutrition: How Eating Changes

For most seniors aging means less activity and less need for calories. Other factors that influence a senior’s diet include:

     
  • A decreased sense of smell and taste may limit appetite.
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  • A tendency to become constipated may require more fluids and fiber.
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  • Less sun exposure and exercise may lead to calcium and vitamin D deficiency.
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  • Medications may interfere with appetite or digestion.
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  • Dentures may limit the ability to chew.
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  • Being alone may take away the desire to eat, shop, and cook.

Understanding Nutrition Terminology

When dietitians talk about senior nutrition and a healthy diet, they are talking about proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Water, vitamins and minerals are also important for senior nutrition. Here are some of the common terms you should know:

     
  • Whole grains. Grains are an important source of carbohydrates. The outer layer around a grain is called the bran and it contains most of the fiber, vitamins and minerals that make grains good for your heart and your digestive system. When grains are ground down or "processed" into white flour, most of these nutrients are lost. That’s why nutrition experts tell you to eat whole grain foods instead of processed foods.
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  • Glycemic index. The glycemic index ranks carbohydrate foods by how much they raise your blood sugar. High glycemic foods are digested quickly and raise your blood sugar quickly. Low glycemic foods are better for your heart, better for weight control and may prevent type 2 diabetes. Examples of low glycemic foods include whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
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  • Healthy fats.  Although your diet should never be high in fats, you do need fats for energy. Fats also help you absorb many vitamins. The terms polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats refer to healthy fats. The terms saturated fats and trans fats refer to unhealthy fats. Healthy fats may lower your cholesterol and are better for your heart. Unhealthy fats definitely raise your cholesterol and are bad for your heart. Examples of healthy fats are nuts, fish and vegetable oils. Common unhealthy fats are found in fatty meats, butter and fast foods.
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  • Healthy proteins. Proteins come from animal products, beans and nuts. Protein is important for building muscles and bones, so you need it in your diet every day. Red meat has plenty of protein, but also has plenty of saturated fat. Substitute lean meat, beans and fish for red meat as a source of protein. Low fat dairy products are another good source of protein because they add vitamin D and calcium.

What Seniors and Caregivers Should Eat

Now that you know some of the basics, here is what you really need to remember:

     
  • Fill up on good carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This should make up most of your healthy diet.
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  • Include some protein every day, but substitute beans, fish or lean meat for red meat most of the time.
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  • Include some fat in the form of plant oils, nuts and fish.
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  • Include some low fat dairy for calcium and vitamin D.
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  • Drink lots of water.
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  • Avoid trans fats, saturated fats, processed foods, salt and added sugar.

Some Tips to Help Seniors Eat Well

"Research shows that people eat more when they are not eating alone. Caregivers can help seniors by eating with them when possible, or arranging for community meals at a senior center," suggests Professor Blake. Other suggestions include:

     
  • "Stock up the refrigerator with healthy food items and prepared meals, or take advantage of a ‘meals on wheels’ program," advises Blake.
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  • Make meals tastier by using new herbs and spices.
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  • Replace raw vegetables and fruits with cooked or pureed choices.
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  • Use shredded or ground meats instead of steaks and chops.
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  • Talk to your healthcare provider about medications that might be affecting appetite.
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  • Check out Professor Blake’s website for more nutrition tips at http://people.bu.edu/salge/qa.html.