Despite the USA being such a wealthy country, malnutrition is a fact of life for some  seniors, who may be on medications that cause nausea or lack of appetite, or have conditions that impact their ability to eat certain foods. Providing a nutrient-rich diet is actually one of the key ways to boost the health and well-being of an older adult. Seniors who eat healthy diets can lower high blood pressure and cholesterol as well as reduce their risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, bone loss and anemia. Making sure that seniors eat well can be a bit of a tricky business though, as they generally need fewer calories than younger adults but the same amount of nutrients, if not more.  

Combat chewing problems

Sometimes the loss of teeth or use of ill-fitting dentures lead seniors to avoid foods that are hard to chew, such as pork chops. In addition to encouraging your Mom or Dad to see a dentist or denturist, you can help improve their nutrition level by serving protein-packed soups as well as soft foods such as rice, hot cereals and steamed vegetables. Adding gravy or sauce can help soften food, and chopping, mashing or pureeing foods can do the trick as well.

Be sure to consider the texture and flavor of a food before deciding how to modify it. A pork chop that is cut very small and tossed with rice or noodles is much more pleasant than pork chop puree!

Vary Protein Sources

There is also some concern that seniors are not eating enough protein. (The minimum protein guideline for an older female is 45 grams a day; for an older man it’s 50 grams.) Make sure that the senior in your life not only eats enough protein but that the sources are varied and of high quality.

When choosing proteins, remember to avoid processed meat products, such as hot dogs, or salami, instead focusing on fish, free-range poultry or grass-fed red meat. If meat is an issue, whether for reasons of preference or ability, serve milk, eggs, yogurt, soy milk, protein smoothies, and cooked  beans. It may also be wise to consider limited use of meal replacements like Ensure.  

Provide a Fiber-Rich Diet

In addition to protein, older adults need to eat plenty of fiber as this can help combat constipation, a common condition in older adults, as well as lower the risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Good sources of fiber include oat or wheat bran, beans and lentils, berries, greens and nuts.

There are many ways to increase the fiber of already-loved foods, such as switching from white flour products to whole grain, and leaving the skin on when eating apples or other fruits and vegetables. However, remember that increasing fiber content may make food both less palatable and more difficult to eat. If this is the case, consider a powdered fiber supplement that can be mixed in with food or drink without noticeably affecting the flavor and mouthfeel.

Watch the Salt

As people age, their sense of taste, especially to salty and bitter tastes, tends to diminish. This can lead an increased use of salt, which can, in turn, increase the chance of developing high blood pressure. Encourage your parent to season food with herbs and spices instead of salt (most salt substitutes contain too much potassium) and limit processed foods or use low-sodium versions instead.

Be sure to check labels when monitoring salt intake. Many foods that do not taste particularly salty can have hidden sodium, especially if they are highly processed convenience or diet foods.

Reducing salt does not need to mean eating bland food! Taste everything as you cook and use bold flavors to replace the loss of salt; lemon juice, pepper, rosemary, or fresh basil may be a good place to start as each is strongly flavored.

Consider Supplementation

As people age, it gets harder for them to process certain vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and vitamins D and B-12. Make sure to provide cereals that are fortified with B-12 as well as meat, fish, poultry and milk. As well, serve plenty of calcium-rich foods like dairy products, almonds, soybeans and canned salmon with bones. Getting enough calcium can help prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures, something that older women are especially vulnerable to.

Using vitamin or mineral supplements might be a good idea, but check with your doctor and pharmacist first before starting a supplementation regime. Remember that even over the counter supplements can interact with prescription medicines.

Be on the Lookout for Dehydration

Also be aware that dehydration can be a serious problem in older adults as the ability to notice thirst often decreases with age. To complicated matters, the symptoms of dehydration often look different in seniors than they do in younger adults or children.

Older adults should drink about nine glasses of fluid (including water, soup, decaffeinated tea, smoothies, coconut water, milk, soy milk) per day. One tip to increase fluid intake is to make sure a bottle of water is always on hand, along with a straw in order to make it easier to drink without maneuvering a heavy bottle.

Many seniors do not enjoy being pushed to drink, especially if they do not recognize a sensation of thirst. Nevertheless it is important to provide steady and gentle reminders throughout the day and to monitor intake of fluids if you are concerned about dehydration.

Guidelines for Healthy Diets

In general, it’s recommended that seniors follow a preventative health maintenance nutritional program, such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Eating Plan or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food patterns plan, which recommends eating the following foods every day:

  • Fruits — 1-1/2 to 2 cups
  • Vegetables — 2 to 3-1/2 cups
  • Grains — 5 to 9 ounces
  • Protein foods — 5 to 6.5 ounces
  • Dairy foods — 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt

The DASH plan is similar but includes a little more fruit and grains and a little less protein and dairy. Here are a few other pointers for making diets as healthy as possible:

  • Focus on serving dark leafy green vegetables like kale as well as orange and yellow veggies like carrots and squash.
  • Offer a variety of fruit, choosing whole fruits over juices as they supply more fiber.
  • Whole grain bread and pasta also pack more fiber as well as nutrients than white-flour versions.
  • Encourage the use of “good fats,” such as olive oil, avocados, salmon, walnuts and flaxseed.
  • Watch for hidden sugar in processed foods -- other terms for sugar include: fructose, sucrose, dextrose, or maltose.

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