A Look at Senior Nutrition

Not everyone's nutrition needs are identical. As we age, our bodies and metabolism change. Although older adults still need plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fiber, they need to add or subtract a few things from the diet they followed earlier in life.

Many older adults have a decreased sense of taste and decreased absorption. They need to make sure they get enough water and nutrients, even if they must take supplements to get them.

Although we all should drink eight glasses of water a day, it's critical for older adults to factor in water because they have decreased kidney function and may not feel thirsty.

Adequate water intake helps avoid constipation. Older adults' digestive tracts don't work as effectively as they once did, making constipation more likely, and many older adults have dental problems that keep them from eating as much fiber as they need. Fiber also helps prevent constipation.

Consider supplements

Another possible addition to an older adult's diet is a vitamin and mineral supplement. Older adults often don't get enough calcium or vitamin D in their diet, and a lack of either of those can lead to bone loss and osteoporosis. Vitamin B12 is another nutrient that's often found lacking in older adults. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans report that, on average, people over age 50 get adequate vitamin B12 by eating fortified cereals. However, as the body ages, it becomes less able to absorb B12 from foods. B12 is critical for healthy nerve and red blood cells. Vitamin B12 supplements may be taken as a pill, an injection, or a gel applied to the inside of the nose.

You should discuss the issue of supplements with your health care provider. Older adults already purchase more supplements than other age groups. Unfortunately, false advertising leads them to believe that supplements will stop or curb the aging process.

Recent research indicates that many problems associated with the aging process can be slowed with a good diet. So the benefits associated with consuming a balanced, nutrient-rich diet are endless.

Other aspects of older nutrition

One good way to find out what you need in daily nutrition is to visit the USDA website, ChooseMyPlate.gov. The site asks for your age, gender, and level of physical activity to determine your daily caloric needs.

Choose My Plate, based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the USDA, encourages people to eat a suggested amount from five major food groups each day. The recommended amounts vary based on a person's age, gender, and activity level. If you can't eat the recommended amounts, at least try to eat something from each group each day. Choose lower-fat foods and include vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

The recommendations below are suggested amounts from the Dietary Guidelines based on daily calorie recommendations. Women over 50 should eat between 1,600 and 2,200 calories a day, depending on their activity level; men over 50 should eat between 2,200 and 2,800 calories, depending on their activity level. If you are physically active most days of the week, choose the amount in the middle or on the high end of the recommendation; if you aren't active most days, choose the lower end of the recommended range:

  • Grains: 5 to 10 ounces. One ounce equals one roll, a slice of bread, or a small muffin; a half cup cooked rice or pasta; or about a cup of ready-to-eat cereal. At least half of the grains you eat should be from whole grains. 

  • Vegetables: 2 to 3.5 cups; include a variety of colors and types.

  • Fruit: 1.5 to 2.5 cups.

  • Low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt, or cheese: 3 cups of milk. One cup of milk equals one cup of yogurt, 1.5 to 2 ounces of cheese, or a half cup of cottage cheese.

  • Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts: 5 to 7 ounces. Equivalent one-ounce servings of lean meat, poultry, or fish are a quarter cup of cooked beans or tofu; 1 egg; half-ounce of nuts or seeds; or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter.

Other tips for good nutrition:

  • Eat only small amounts of fats, oils, and sweets.

  • Fruits and vegetables are a real plus for seniors because they are lower in calories than other foods, yet high in nutrients, Fruit is much healthier for dessert than cookies or cake; yet many older adults indulge their sweet tooth with sugary treats rather than fresh fruit.

When eating is a problem

Some older adults have trouble getting adequate nutrition because of health problems or financial difficulties. If these are problems that affect you, there are steps you can take to ease them.

If you have trouble chewing, you might not be able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, or meat. Instead, you might try the following ideas, from the FDA:

  • Instead of fresh fruit, try fruit juices or canned fruits, such as peaches or pears that are canned in juice, not syrup,

  • Instead of raw vegetables, try vegetable juices or cooked and mashed vegetables.

  • Instead of a chunk of meat, try ground meat, or protein alternatives, such as eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt.

  • Instead of sliced bread, try cooked cereals, rice, and bread pudding.

If certain foods give you gas, try these alternatives:

  • Low-fat cream soups, pudding, yogurt, and cheese can take the place of milk. Lactose-free dairy products may also help prevent gas. 

  • Green beans, carrots, and potatoes can take the place of broccoli and cabbage.

  • Fruit juices and canned fruits can take the place of fresh fruit. The same is true for juice and canned vegetables.

If you can't shop or cook for yourself, you can make other arrangements. Some groceries will deliver food at no charge; others charge a fee. A family member, friend, or church or synagogue group may be able to help with shopping. A senior citizen program in your area may deliver meals. You can use the microwave to cook already-prepared meals. You might consider moving to a place where meals are prepared for you--either with a family member or a senior citizens' center. Eating with other people also is a good way to encourage your appetite; eating alone can be lonely.

If money is a problem, here are some suggestions from the FDA:

  • Buy low-cost foods such as dried beans and peas, rice, and pasta.

  • Use coupons to save money on food.

  • Look for sales and store-brand foods, which often cost less.

  • Check with your church or synagogue to see if it offers free or low-cost meals.

  • Call a local senior citizen program about meal programs. You may be able to eat there or have meals brought to your home.

  • Find out if there is a Meals-on-Wheels program near you.

  • Get food stamps. The food stamp office is listed under your county government in the phone book.

Food safety

No matter what your age, it's important to treat food carefully to avoid foodborne illness. As you age, your sense of taste or smell may not always be able to tell you when a food is no longer fit to eat--when milk has soured or meat has spoiled. Your senses may be affected by medication that you take or by illness.

Your stomach also produces less acid. Stomach acid is a natural defense against bacteria you might have eaten. Your immune system also may not be as strong as it once was, making it more difficult to fight bacteria.

Here are food safety tips from the FDA:

  • Refrigerate or freeze all perishable food. Your refrigerator should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or 4 degrees Celsius and your freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or -18 degrees Celsius.

  • Never thaw foods at room temperature. Instead, thaw them in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave, and cook them immediately.

  • Wash your hands with soapy water before preparing food. Wash your hands, utensils, cutting boards, and other work surfaces after they come in contact with raw meat and poultry.

  • Never leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. If the temperature in the room is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 32 degrees Celsius, the food shouldn't be left out for more than one hour.

  • Thoroughly cook raw meat, poultry, and fish.