A healthy diet keeps your body functioning properly. Eating right also provides the mental and physical energy necessary for daily life – work, recreation, relationships and time with family. Eating healthily also protects us from infectious illnesses and chronic diseases so we can experience a high quality of life.
While eating right is important for people of any age, for seniors it’s an especially important issue. It’s estimated that more than 70% of seniors admitted to the hospital for various ailments are experiencing malnutrition.
While in some cases isolation and lack of mobility can account for this malnutrition, there are also a variety and myths and assumptions about how much we should eat as we get older. Let’s take a look at these myths, and debunk them, one by one.
Myth 1: It’s Natural to Lose Your Appetite
Many people take it as just a fact of life that we need to eat less as we age. In fact, while seniors may need slightly fewer calories and food-bulk than younger adults, they need just as many nutrients, if not more. One reason is that as we age, our ability to absorb nutrients actually decreases. As we will see as this list progresses, there are actually reasons why we, as seniors, may not feel inclined to eat. But our body still needs food.
Myth 2: Being a Little Overweight is Actually a Good Sign
Because our metabolism changes as we get older, many of us lose weight. And, as we saw above, we take it for granted that older people just don’t like eating. So, any weight gain is regarded as being “healthy.” The overweight, or obese, are said to experience lifespans 10 years less than average according to a study by Oxford University. In fact, risks of being overweight include type-2 diabetes, heart disease and even Alzheimer’s disease.
As well, being overweight can limit mobility, and lead to falls. So, it’s important to keep an eye on your weight as you age and eat healthily.
Myth 3: If You’re Old, You Can Just Let Yourself Go
Seniors and their families who are attempting to follow healthy eating habits are often confronted by the notion that it’s better to be permissive about what you eat, because “you’re old.” So this means eating what one likes with little regards for the consequences. However, the consequences can be dire. Poor nutrition can affect your mood, your energy levels during the day, and even mobility. These can decrease your overall quality of life. This doesn’t need to happen if you maintain a healthy diet.
Myth 4: Seniors Who Aren’t Overweight Can Eat Whatever They Want
People who are a “healthy weight” can still develop heart disease from eating too many high-fat foods, and they can still develop diabetes from an improper sugar-heavy diet. This issue is especially relevant to seniors because difficulty cooking can cause seniors to adopt a diet where the main staple is a pre-packaged meal, for example.
Myth 5: Food Is Just For Nutrition
Food is more than just fuel for the body. Instead, food is a social act. Eating with others increases our appetite and how much we consume at each meal. For seniors, the danger is that eating almost every meal in isolation can also exacerbate loneliness, stress and anxiety. Physical and cognitive problems often cause seniors to become unable to prepare adequately nutritious or filling meals. In other words, constantly eating alone can put seniors at risk. The solution of course is for seniors to, at least some of the time, eat with others.
Tips for Better Elderly Nutrition
Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out just how to eat healthily as a senior. Here are some tips to ensure you’re receiving the nutrition you need to maintain your quality of life and your independence.
1) Increase fruits and vegetables in your diet
Fresh fruits and vegetables are wonderful sources of the fiber, vitamins, and enzymes our bodies need to remain healthy. For those with dental issues, steaming vegetables so that they are softer to eat while still retaining their nutrition is easy to do. For those who have no trouble chewing, cut up raw vegetables with a tasty dip as a snack or a small meal.
2) Make lunch the big meal of the day
Often by dinner, seniors are too tired to finish meals. Also, some seniors can have more digestive problems that interfere with a good night’s sleep. We all actually need more calories earlier in the day.
3) Stay hydrated
Remember to maintain fluid levels. It is important for all bodily processes to sip some liquids throughout the day. The more fruits and vegetables in our diets, the more naturally hydrated we are.
2) Eat small meals more often
Believe it or not, it’s actually better for most seniors to eat 5-6 small meals a day. The benefits can include:
- Reducing the highs and lows of insulin levels;
- Helping seniors who find it painful to eat large meals because of chest congestion or breathing problems;
- Encouraging more calorie intake for those who have lost their appetites; and
- Offering more opportunities to socialize and be with others.
5) Don’t skip meals
Skipping a meal usually makes a person eat more at the following meal and can drop blood sugars causing dizziness. If not hungry, it is better to eat a little than to skip. These are just the basics of eating right for seniors. See the Healthy Eating for Seniors Handbook published by the Government of British Columbia for more tips.