By Carol Witte, RDN, Director of Nutrition Services and Senior Centers
It is important to remain well-nourished at every stage of our life, but it often becomes more difficult as we get older. An individual may lack proper nutrition due to a number of factors, including not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to digest the food one does eat. As we age, our metabolism slows down and other changes in our bodies increase risk. Often older adults experience decreased appetite, weight loss, and decreased mobility because of health issues. Sometimes, poor diets are caused by physical or mental changes. Other times, they are affected by a person’s situation such as feeling alone or an inability to get to the store or prepare healthy meals.
Medications may affect appetite or the ability to absorb key nutrients. Some medical conditions like dysphagia, which makes swallowing difficult or painful, can lead to malnutrition. Hunger, on the other hand, is defined as the feeling or sensation of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food. For a variety of reasons, older adults can lose their appetite and may not feel hungry, even though their bodies need food. Sometimes individuals can even gain weight, but still may not be well nourished because of their food choices and the decreased desire to shop and prepare healthy meals.
Staying active and including a variety of healthy foods can help you maintain your health. Making smart food choices helps your body in numerous ways—here are just a few:
Strong Muscles and Bones
As we age we lose muscle and bone mass. If you are not eating a variety of healthy food, this process may quicken. When you lose muscle and bone mass, you may have aches and pains that make it more difficult to do everyday tasks like walking, dressing and bathing. Low muscle strength is one of the major risk factors for falls. If you retain your muscle mass and bone strength however, you will maintain a better posture, helping avoid neck, back and shoulder pain, and likely improving your balance.
Keeping Your Immune System Strong
Your body uses the nutrients in food to fight infections and build and repair body tissue. When people are malnourished, it is more difficult for their body to heal and fight illness.
Helps Your Body to Heal
Nutrition plays a huge role in your recovery after an illness or surgery. Your body needs energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to heal. Recovery from chemotherapy, sickness and infections is quicker when you are well nourished before becoming ill.
Helps Your Eyes, Your Brain & Your Kidneys
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can accelerate vision loss which may be caused by glaucoma, cataract and/or macular degeneration. There are many vitamin and mineral supplements that are marketed as helpful for your eyes and your brain. Only use supplements as recommended by your physician and/or dietitian. Try eating dark green and orange fruits and vegetables since they can naturally strengthen vision. Fluids, electrolytes and nutrient intake can also make a big difference in how numerous organs in your body function—especially your brain and kidneys.
Where Do You Begin?
Avoid over-nutrition, which comes from eating too many calories. Someone can be obese and malnourished at the same time. The food you eat may give you energy but not give you enough nutrients. Focus on consuming healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, beans, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds.
Protein is important. If your body does not get enough protein, it is difficult to maintain strong muscles, fight infection and heal. Lean proteins are the best choice. Protein comes from meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, beans and a smaller amount in some grains. Older adults should consume approximately six ounces of protein daily.
Don’t forget to stay hydrated. Drinking enough fluids (watch the caffeine!) is so very important for your health and nutrition.
Be sure to take care of your teeth with proper brushing and flossing at least twice a day. If your mouth is healthy, it will be easier to consume a variety of colorful foods and different textures.
Remember to consult your health care provider if you notice any weight changes, decreased appetite or other problems which may stop you from eating those healthy foods.
Stay active and consider coming to one of our Activity & Dining Centers if you are able, for socialization, increased activity and a delicious nutritious meal that will keep you stronger and well nourished!