March is National Nutrition Month, a time to bring attention to how eating well can help us age well. Seniors may be at higher risk for malnutrition for a number of reasons, including ailing health, living alone, or a decreased sense of taste and smell, all of which can decrease one’s appetite. Here are some tips to help you eat well to age well.
Eat nutrient-dense foods
Make sure to include a variety to fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats and whole grains into your diet. Foods that are particularly rich in nutrients include wild Alaskan salmon (rich in Omega-3s), blueberries (high in antioxidants), kale (a powerful anti-inflammatory food rich in vitamins, avocados (a source of healthy fats), eggs (high quality protein), chia seeds (high in fiber and protein), and almonds (high in calcium, a nutrient seniors may need more due to the fact that bones lose density as we age).
Take a loss of appetite or weight loss seriously
With America’s obsession with losing weight, weight loss in seniors may not raise any immediate cause for alarm. However, a loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss may be a symptom of other issues, such as depression, adverse reactions to medication, dental problems or other maladies. Dr. John E. Morley of St. Louis University, developed a screening tool to detect appetite problems in seniors. Dr. Morley goes so far as to say that, “for senior adults, weight loss correlates with death.” The good news, according to Morley, is that “90 percent of the diseases that cause weight loss in older adults are treatable.”
On the flip side, obesity is a major health concern
Seniors may have lost interest in cooking, due to living alone and no longer having a spouse to care for. This can lead to an overreliance on processed foods that are easy to fix, but can be high in calories, sugar, sodium and fat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 34 percent of seniors are classified as obese and that number reaches 40 percent when you look at those between the ages of 65-74. Numerous studies have shown that obesity increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, obese people tend to have less energy and therefore are less physical active than their normal-weight counterparts, which exacerbates the problem. Those who are overweight have higher medical costs, have more illness and recover more slowly from injuries. Obesity in seniors may be caused by numerous factors, including physical (hormonal changes), environmental (poverty), genetics (it does run in families), or certain diseases.
Don’t confuse “low fat” foods with good health
Many low-fat or nonfat foods are loaded with sugar (and therefore, calories), which can be more harmful to health than fats. Second, not all fats are created equal. Many foods high in fat – avocados, olive oil, wild salmon, walnuts – have numerous benefits and can actually help improve health. There are fats you should always avoid – trans fats being the main culprit, which you can identify on food labels when you see the word “hydrogenated.” In fact, the FDA recently ordered all food manufacturers to stop using trans fats within three years because of the potential danger they present. As with all things, it is best to eat all fats in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
It’s never too late to start eating well
According to the National Institutes of Health, even if you already have one or more chronic diseases, eating well may help you better manage conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Mediterranean-style diets – which place an emphasis on eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and eating moderate amounts of fish while using healthy fats and oils like those found in nuts, olives and avocados – have been particularly successful in helping people age well. The Harvard Health Letter suggests following such a diet can reduce your risk for heart attack, stroke and premature death.
This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you have questions about your nutritional needs.