Nutrition and Seniors

It is well known that eating a nutritionally sound diet at any age is beneficial. Sound nutrition helps our bodies function well and may limit or reverse damage resulting from previously poor eating habits. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates that seniors are nutritionally insufficient in the following areas: intake of several nutrients including folate, vitamin C, and vitamin E; intake of vegetable and meat groups; dietary variety; and levels of certain nutrients (USDA, 2000). In addition, they are at higher risk of being overweight.

Obesity and Seniors

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared our current national status as an “obesity epidemic,” as 64 percent of Americans are overweight and more than 30 percent are considered obese (FDA, 2004). Obesity is defined as a person weighing more than 120 percent of their desirable weight. As you may already know, obesity puts us at greater risk for a variety of health concerns, including hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, functional limitations, and premature morbidity (Merck, 2004). But dying early is exactly the reason why obesity is not really considered an issue for the elderly. In fact, according to the National Institute on Aging, “Weight generally increases over the lifetime until middle age, then tends to decrease into old age with changes in muscle, fat, and bone” (NIA, 2004). After the age of 70, nutrition and risk of being underweight became bigger concerns than obesity.

Eating Well as We Age

As a result of body changes, seniors typically require fewer calories. At the same time, nutritionists urge seniors to adhere to diets rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and (importantly) water. To help seniors maintain balanced deist, Dr. Robert B. Russell of Tufts University and the Health and Nutrition Research Center, along with a team of nutrition specialists, developed the 70+ Food Pyramid, a new version of the well-known USDA food pyramid. The 70+ Food Pyramid has been endorsed by AARP and provides important information for seniors to consider when discussing their dietary habits with physicians. The pyramid addresses the facts that seniors tend to eat less and consume fewer calories than younger people do and that they typically do not get the recommended amount of nutrients.

At the top of the 70+ Food Pyramid is a flag that draws attention to senior’s potential need for vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin B12 supplements. Calcium and vitamin D absorption, as well as the absorption of vitamin B12 (required for normal, healthy nerve function), decreases with age. This can cause adverse effects on bone health and increases the risk of fractures. Although not every senior required vitamin and mineral supplements, seniors should discuss their particular nutritional needs with their primary physicians.

According to the USDA, seniors, compared with other segments of the population, have impaired responses to reduced body water. Therefore, they are most vulnerable to dehydration (USDA, 2002). Research also indicates that humans lose their thirst sensation as they age. As a result, many seniors do not drink enough fluids. To make matters worse, certain medications cause fluid imbalances within the body. These circumstances can lead to dehydration, kidney problems, and constipation. Dr. Russell and his colleagues kept these facts in mind when creating the 70+ Food Pyramid. As a result, the base of the 70+ Food Pyramid contains eight glasses of water (instead of grains, rice and pasta as is found in the current USDA food pyramid). This recommendation shows just how important fluid balance is for seniors.

According to Dr. Russell and his team, beneficial fluids include, in any combination, water, juice, milk, decaffeinated tea or coffee, and soups. Water, according to nutritionists, is the best fluid, as it does not contain the natural sugars found in other beverages, such as juice. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea, or soda, on the other hand, are not beneficial and therefore do not count toward fluid intake.

The 70+ Food Pyramid reflects the findings from a 1988-89 study that found two-fifths of seniors eat less than they did when they were younger. According to the study, compared to the standard intake of 1,600 calories or more per day, seniors consumed 1,500 calories or less per day. Experts agree that there is nothing wrong with eating less as one ages, as long as those foods still provide sufficient dietary nutrients. The study’s finding support the importance of whole grains, a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables. Low-fat dairy and lean meats, fish, and poultry as part of a healthy diet. More information about the 70+ Food Pyramid and senior nutrition can be found at Tufts Medical Center by clicking on the following link:

Necessary Nutrients

As the Tufts researchers point out, eating foods that are high in nutrients is important to seniors, as it is for all age groups. Two of the most important components of healthy diets are fruits and vegetables that contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. When fiber enters the digestive system, it “grabs” and absorbs fatty acids, helping to eliminate them from the body. This process reduces bad cholesterol. Fiber also plays an important role in preventing constipation, a common gastrointestinal complaint of seniors.

Sources of Necessary Nutrients

Vitamin B6: eggs, whole grain cereals, liver, herring, salmon, nuts, brown rice

Vitamin B12: meat, poultry, liver, kidney, egg yolk, fish

Folic Acid: liver and kidneys, dark-green leafy vegetables, wheat germ, dried peas and beans

Vitamin C: berries, sweet peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, citrus fruits

Vitamin D: sunshine, milk, liver oils, tuna, salmon, herring, egg yolk, margarine

Vitamin E: nuts, vegetable oils, wheat germ oil, olives, peanut oil

Calcium: milk, cheese, dairy food, sardines

Zinc: meat, eggs, liver, seafood

Magnesium: unrefined cereals, legumes, avocados

Chromium: whole grains, leafy green vegetables

Fiber: whole grains, fruits, vegetables

Healthy Eating Challenges

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a number of challenges may make eating difficult for seniors. The following sections provide details on some of the major limitations.

Difficulty Preparing Meals

Seniors may not have an interest in cooking, may have disabilities that prevent use of cooking equipment, or may be unable to stand for long periods. Despite these limitations, possible options include:

  • Using a microwave oven to cook frozen meals;
  • Participating in group meal programs (offered at senior centers);
  • Having meals delivered to the home;
  • Obtaining housing that provides meal services.

Appetite Problems

Seniors may lack appetite. They may find mealtimes lonely and simply choose not to eat. Or, if they live alone, they may not wish to prepare meals for themselves. Other commonly cited reasons for decreased interest in food are change in taste buds or medication usage, both of which can dramatically alter the taste of food. To increase interest in eating, seniors could consider:

  • Creating opportunities to eat with others (family, friends);
  • Taking part in group meal programs through senior centers, faith groups, and related programs;
  • Talking with physicians about changing medications;
  • Cooking with spices and herbs to enhance taste.

Inability to Shop

Many seniors find it difficult to shop for necessities. They may no longer drive or find it difficult to walk or stand in lines. Such factors can prevent seniors from obtaining nutritious food. Fortunately, they have options, including:

  • Having groceries delivered (nominal fee or even free for seniors);
  • Asking a community volunteer to assist with shopping or delivering groceries’
  • Shopping with family members or friends;
  • Paying someone to purchase groceries from a prepared list;
  • Contracting with a home health service to shop for and deliver groceries.

Cost of Groceries

For some seniors, money is an ongoing problem. Sadly, many of them must choose between purchasing medications and buying food. When money is scarce, so too are food choices. Seniors who have minimal financial resources can still maintain nutritious diets by following these recommendations:

  • Buy low-cost foods, such as dried beans, rice, pasta, soups, and canned vegetables.
  • Buy foods on sale and use cost-saving coupons
  • Located free or low-cost meals through churches or synagogues
  • Participate in Meals on Wheels or in meal programs sponsored through senior centers
  • If eligible, obtain food stamps through local government programs

 Using Food Packaging Labels

All people, regardless of age, should learn to read food-packaging labels to help themselves make healthy choices in grocery stores, at home, and on the road. By law, food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients by weight from greatest to least. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees truth in labeling, ensures the information on product labels is correct.

Labels are especially useful for people with food sensitivities to see exactly what each product contains. Using this information properly can help seniors manage various health problems such as osteoporosis, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

Nutrition labels display five key features: nutritional facts, serving size, percentage of daily value, vitamins and minerals, and recommended daily values. Individual nutrient needs may be more or less than the daily values listed on labels. Seniors with questions might consider speaking with registered dieticians, who can calculate personal daily values. For questions about specific products, seniors can contact food manufacturers directly. Toll-free numbers are located on most product containers.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.