Senior adults have their own nutrition-related concerns.
“For many seniors, that might fall into two categories,” said Dr. Brent Fountain, Mississippi State University Extension nutritionist and registered dietitian. “One is dental health. Does poor dental health mean someone can’t process certain foods? The answer is yes. That could be protein sources, such as meat. And are there any swallowing problems? These both have immediate impacts.”
Drink water early
On an everyday basis, one of the most important elements is sufficient water intake, he said.
“Often water is overlooked,” Fountain said. “Everyone needs hydration, but it’s a bigger concern as we get older. The standard is 8 cups every day. You can use a pregraduated bottle, with the marks on it to show how much water you’ve consumed. You can see whether you’re drinking enough throughout the day.”
If you’re concerned about “nature’s call” at night, Fountain advises drinking most of your water earlier in the day.
Don’t lose muscle
Seniors also should be concerned about sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, he said.
“As we age, our bodies don’t use protein as efficiently,” he said. “Protein is still a key component. Protein works if you’re physically active. It protects bones.”
He said often an older person who falls and breaks a bone will assume their bones are weak. “What likely failed was the support around the bones — muscle.”
This process starts when we’re in our 40s, he said.
“We start losing mass over time. Protein allows tissues to repair and rebuild,” he said.
Good sources of protein are essential.
“Basically, you need protein with each meal, in the 3- to 4-ounce range,” Fountain said. “Look to a variety of meats, such as skinless chicken, fish and the occasional red meat sources, if red meat is not an issue. Dairy products are very high in protein — your milk, less-sweetened yogurt. Peanuts and other nuts are high in protein as are soy products, such as tofu.”
He also suggested combining foods to ensure sufficient protein consumption. A bonus: These combinations are budget friendly.
“Red beans and rice, or a peanut butter sandwich on bread — all provide the amino acids you need,” he said.
Fruits and vegetables also are vitally important.
“Vegetables and fruits in different colors” should be a large component of a senior’s diet, he said. “I encourage picking a variety in orange, red, dark greens. Make sure you’re getting some of that every day.”
Sheran R. Watkins, extension agent and county coordinator for the Harrison County Extension Service, advises seniors who want the convenience of prepared fruit to read labels.
“Look at the ones packed in natural juices or packed in water,” she said, adding to avoide those packed in heavy (read: sugary) syrups. “And frozen is just as good as fresh; the nutrients are retained.”
Calcium is important for maintaining bone strength, she said.
“Make sure you include it daily as part of your diet,” she said. “You can get it through yogurt, milk and other dairy products. As we get older, we might not be able to handle dairy as much as before, so there are options such as almond milk. Just make sure you don’t get the sweetened kind.”
Dark-green leafy vegetables, almonds and green beans are other sources of calcium.
Meal prepping is beneficial for seniors, Fountain said.
“Keep a list on your refrigerator of what’s in the freezer,” he said. “Include the date it was put in there, too. Also, write it on the package.”
Keeping portions in mind also is important, Watkins said.
“Kitchen scales are a good way to check your portions,” she said. “After a while, you can become familiar with a serving size so it will be easier to estimate.”
If you’re 65 or older, good news: You can stand to have a couple pounds on you.
Dr. David Buys, Extension health specialist at Mississippi State University, focuses on senior adults who are ill or coming home from the hospital.
“At their discharge, they might not hear about the importance of nutrition,” he said. He mentioned a New York Times story on a man who was discharged from a hospital stay for congestive heart failure. After his discharge, he having to decide between the pharmacy and the grocery store.
“When resources are limited, nutrition is usually put on the back burner,” he said. “A doctor will give a prescription, and that’s perceived as the most important thing to take care of.”
Of course, medicine is important, but so is proper nutrition, Buys said.
“What research shows is that a little extra weight can be protection” for those 65 or older, he said. “It’s better for rebounding from illness. If you are a senior and on a diet, you should be under strict supervision of a doctor.”
A few extra pounds
The idea that a few pounds — not obesity, but a healthy weight — is good probably is a surprise, Buys noted.
“The health message we’ve gotten most of our lives is lose weight, lose weight,” he said. “You need to be a healthy weight. There’s no one-size-fits-all weight, but it depends individually.”
Buys advises seniors to download free booklets from the National Institute on Aging, including “Healthy Eating After 50” for more information.