In terms of nutrition and good health, you are what you eat -- no matter what age you are. For seniors, particular attention needs to be paid to a good diet since other factors such as illness and medications may exacerbate their well-being and impinge on nutrients. Eating well, along with exercise, can help safeguard your health as well as extend your life.
"A senior's nutritional needs differ from that of someone younger in that they should focus more on the benefits of healthy eating, such as increased mental acuteness, resistance to illness and disease, higher energy levels, a more robust immune system, faster recuperation times, and better management of chronic health problems," says Neha S. Patel, Registered Dietitian with Adventist Bolingbrook Hospital.
In addition, eating well can also be a key to a positive outlook and staying emotionally balanced as we develop a positive relationship with food. Eating is fun and enjoyable and those aspects need not be lost when considering good nutrition.
Nutrition and aging
Seniors need to be on the lookout for certain medications and medical conditions that can adversely affect their nutrition.
"(Medications and conditions) can negatively affect appetite and taste, which may lead seniors to add too much salt or sugar to their food," says Patel. "They can always ask their doctor about overcoming side effects of medications or specific physical conditions."
In addition to medications, the aging process also affects taste.
"Seniors' taste and smell senses diminish with age and they tend to lose sensitivity to salty and bitter tastes," says Patel. "They can use herbs, seasonings, and healthy olive oils to season food instead of salt. Similarly, instead of adding sugar to foods, they can try increasing sweetness to meals by using naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, or yams."
Aging can also mean weight gain if food intake isn't adjusted. "Every year over the age of 40, metabolism slows down a little more," says Patel. "What this means is that if seniors continue to eat the same amount as when they did when they were younger, they are more likely to gain weight because less calories are being burned. Also, seniors may be less physically active."
Conversely, malnutrition is also seen in seniors, says Patel. "Seniors are at risk for malnutrition as it is a critical health issue among this population caused by eating too little food, too few nutrients, and by digestive problems related to aging," she says. "Malnutrition can cause fatigue, depression, a weakened immune system, anemia, physical weakness, digestive, lung, and heart problems, and skin concerns." The aging process also affects certain vitamin assimilation, such as B12, B6 and folic acid, as the digestive system slows down, producing less saliva and stomach acid. Patel says simple steps to prevent malnutrition include, eating nutrient-packed foods, having flavorful food, snacking between meals, and including a variety of foods in your diet. She also suggests drinking a lot of water to aid in overall digestion and to prevent mental confusion and other health issues.
Eat well, have fun
The three chefs at Senior Star at Weber Place -- Sue Iverson, Donald Reid, and Thomas Mendenhall -- take good nutrition into account when planning dining options for their community, but they've taken eating well a fun step further. Senior Star, a continuing care community in Romeoville, offers free cooking classes to residents as well as the public that take place one Wednesday a month in Spiritual Gardens, a meeting room with a demo kitchen. The event begins with lunch at noon and the cooking class immediately follows at 1:30 p.m.
"Our primary focus is to engage seniors in the cooking process, teach new methods and to enjoy the company of each other in a humorous, fun, enthusiastic environment," says Reid. "We hope to inspire new interest in cooking as well as teach seniors how to take their favorite recipes to a new level -- healthier, more nutritious and always delicious."
Reid says the demonstrations started with a simple thought: "'How do we reinvent some classic recipes that our residents love in a healthier way?' We have a favorite on our menu -- chicken fried steak -- which typically has about 35 grams of fat per serving. After switching the beef to chicken and the coating to a lighter bread crumb and finally, oven baking instead of frying, we lowered the fat to about 9 grams." It's not unusual, says Reid, to have a resident approach him and share a treasured family recipe they would like reinterpreted.
"By bringing back classic dishes that our residents were brought up with and reinventing them in a healthy, nutritious and modern approach is (one reason) why I love food," adds Mendenhall.
While Senior Star does not offer any special dietary meals, the chefs do offer a varied menu and watch their use of salt and offer sugar-free dessert alternatives. Iverson, who also serves as the community's food and beverage manager, warns against too much reliance on convenience foods in this age group.
"Many seniors are eating quick convenience foods that are high in sodium or fat because they either choose not to cook or are not able to cook for themselves," she says. "Here at Senior Star we have seen how beneficial eating three healthy meals a day has been. It has improved the residents' overall well-being -- physically, mentally, and socially. Continuing to learn new ways to eat is such a bonus for them."
The next free class open to the public at Senior Star is "Crepes For All Meals," Wednesday, June 22. Registration is not necessary and for more information, call 815-439-2033.
The how tos
Avoid the pitfalls of poor nutrition, Patel says to follow the USDA's new nutrition guidelines that promote good health for all ages.
"Seniors should focus on eating a variety of foods," she says. This includes half the plate of fruits and vegetables, one-quarter of the plate from grains, and one-quarter of the plate from protein and to a lesser degree dairy. "Fruits and dairy, such as yogurt, can be eaten as snacks, or even part of the meal," she adds. "Some of the healthier oils to use are olive and canola. They can also include healthy fats from avocados and nuts."
Patel says creating a well-balanced diet includes preparing your meals instead of choosing convenience foods, which are usually loaded with sodium or unhealthy fats. "If seniors are not capable of cooking, home delivery meals are an option. Seniors should definitely try to avoid skipping meals. This may cause metabolism to slow down, which leads to feeling sluggish and poorer choices or larger meals later in the day."
Reid says eating as a senior is the same as eating at any age. Portion control, balanced meals and wholesome nutritious food are all important. Learning to eat for vitality is key at the senior level and being focused on proper nutrition is just part of the equation.
"Sharing mealtime with friends and family is critical to our well-being," he adds, "and eating nutritious, wholesome meals is the added bonus."
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