Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important at any age, but especially for older adults. It’s essential to get the nutrients you need to stay energized, keep your body strong, lower your risk of developing chronic health conditions and maintain a healthy weight. Good nutrition, along with regular exercise, is one of the best things older adults can do in the name of aging well.
It’s estimated that 25 percent of older Americans suffer from poor nutrition. This leads to a slew of health issues, including being overweight or underweight, weakened bones and muscles, a lowered immune system and even cognitive decline. As we get older, we also require fewer calories, which means that the food we eat has to work especially hard to earn its place on our plates.
In honor of National Nutrition Month, I wanted to highlight healthy eating for older adults and provide easy tips for integrating healthy habits into your daily routine. Residents at Charles E. Smith Life Communities have the benefit of chef-prepared meals tailored to their specific nutritional needs, tastes and diets. In addition to offering kosher dining options, we also tailor meals for vegans, vegetarians, those requiring a low-sodium diet and other personal preferences. In order to continually provide a safe environment for residents, room service delivers a healthy culinary experience every day, three times a day.
Common Barriers to Healthy Eating
Calorie intake. As I mentioned, we need fewer calories as we age because our metabolisms slow down. It’s very easy to gain weight by overeating on a regular basis, especially if you don’t exercise as much as you did when you were younger.
Loss of appetite. It’s common for older adults to lose their appetites as they age, especially when their senses of taste and smell diminish. This leads to either eating less (because nothing tastes good) or eating the wrong types of foods because you can only taste certain things.
Medical conditions. Many chronic health problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes, require a change of diet in order to live as well as possible. However, it’s hard to break old habits, and it’s not always easy to follow a strict diet.
Medication side effects. Certain medications can affect your appetite and even react poorly with different foods. For example, you need to avoid grapefruit if you take warfarin (a common blood thinner).
Home life. Older individuals who live alone often have poor eating habits. Even those who don’t live alone, though, can have difficulty preparing healthy meals because it’s too much trouble to go to the store and cook. Relying on processed foods and pre-packaged options can lead to poor nutrition and other health issues.
Tips for Healthy Eating As You Age
Choose whole, nutrient-rich foods. As Michael Pullan famously said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” What that means for older adults (and all of us, really) is to focus on real foods (that is, whole foods that are as unprocessed as possible), especially natural things that grow from the ground. Eating nutrient-dense foods will enable you to gain all the nutrients you need. Focus on filling your plate with fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins like chicken, fish, whole grains and seeds and nuts. Limit sweets and junk food, which are high in calories but low in nutrients.
Get enough fiber. Fiber does more than keep you regular. It also helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels, keeps blood sugar in check and keeps you full between meals. It’s best to get your fiber from natural sources, like from beans, vegetables and fruits, and whole grains. But if you find it hard to get enough fiber in your regular diet, consider adding a fiber supplement into your daily routine.
Stay hydrated. Older adults tend to lose their sense of thirst, so it’s not uncommon to become dehydrated. Make sure you’re sipping fluids on a regular basis. The rule of thumb is eight glasses of water a day, but remember that you can get hydration from tea, soup, juice and even some foods. Water helps us digest food better, keeps muscles and joints limber and makes us feel better overall.
Don’t skimp on calcium. Make sure you’re getting adequate calcium to maintain bone health. Milk and cheese are obvious choices, but you can also get calcium from non-dairy sources like kale, tofu, almonds, broccoli and other foods.
Eat more fat. Good fat, that is. Healthy fats, like the ones found in fish, nuts, avocados and olive oil, boost your immune system, improve brain function and health, keep your skin supple and fill you up so you remain satiated between meals.
Make meals an event. Mealtimes are a lot more enjoyable when they’re shared with friends and family. Whenever possible, get together with others to break bread and share conversation. Studies have shown that older adults who eat with others have better nutrition, make better food choices and are healthier overall than those who eat by themselves.
Find ways to make shopping and cooking easier. These days, eating healthy is (surprisingly) easier than ever. If going to the grocery store is difficult for you, you can order groceries online and have them delivered to your door. Meal kit boxes, like HelloFresh or Blue Apron, deliver ingredients and recipes to you so that you can sample different foods. Many grocery stores offer in-store meal kits that come with everything you need to make a fresh and healthy meal from scratch.