Senior citizens have special nutritional needs

Hispanic senior couple
Paying attention to good nutrition becomes more and more important for seniors. Cutting corners on health maintenance creates extra consequences.

Posted June 16, 2010

By Judith S. Stern, Sc.D.

Congratulations! If you are over 70 years old, you must know a great deal about taking care of yourself. But as people age, their needs change.

Seniors who cut corners on health maintenance suffer more consequences than younger people. Paying attention to good nutrition becomes more and more important.

Investigate unintentional weight loss

Many seniors don’t have the appetite they once had, and food may seem to taste different, making once-loved dishes less tempting. If you’re eating less, it’s sometimes hard to fit in the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health.

Judith Stern is a professor of clinical nutrition with UC Davis Health System.

People tend to lose weight gradually as they age. It’s best to check with a doctor if you have noticed unintentional weight loss, as it could signal a medical problem.

If you are becoming too thin, try eating five or six small meals throughout the day. Fit in three different kinds of nutritious food with each meal, such as cereal with milk and a glass of orange juice; pasta mixed with tuna and peas; or flavored yogurt with fresh fruit and a bagel; or a balanced nutrition drink with protein, carb, fat and vitamins and minerals.. 

Avoid fad diets

Many elders have the opposite problem. If being overweight is an issue for you, try to become a bit more active while maintaining a nutritious diet. A slow, steady weight loss resulting from a real change in habits is preferable to rapid loss on a fad diet. Cut back on empty calories by keeping only a few tempting treats on hand. Use low-fat alternatives to satisfy a sweet tooth, such as graham crackers, ginger snaps, frozen yogurt or angel-food cake.

All seniors should focus on eating nutrient-rich foods. Whole grains such as whole wheat bread and high-fiber cereals are good starch choices. Get as much variety as possible and include at least five fruits and vegetables daily. Usually, the brighter the colors, the higher the vitamin content. Apricots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, beets, broccoli, spinach and tomatoes are all excellent choices. Onions and garlic provide good flavoring to many recipes and have health-enhancing properties as well.

Make enough for leftovers

Is it hard to be inspired to cook for just one or two people? Make up plenty when you feel like cooking, then make good use of leftovers the other days. Pasta, rice, potatoes or vegetables can be saved for another day and used as a basis for a cold salad or a reheated dish. Mix with a chicken breast, low-fat cottage cheese, canned fish or a can of beans, and top with a balsamic vinegar, salsa or tomato sauce, and grated parmesan cheese.

Prepare your favorite stew or casserole, then freeze meal-size portions. Keep on hand individual-size pizza crusts or frozen veggie burgers for more quick meals. On warm days, blend up a fruit smoothie drink with yogurt, milk, a banana and a handful of fresh or frozen berries.

Don't wait until you're thirsty

Water is one “food” we usually take for granted. Most people are surprised to learn that we need six to eight cups of liquid each day. At least two or three glasses should come from plain water. Adequate water intake ensures that food moves through the system easily and prevents constipation.

Thirst is not a perfect indicator of water needs, so don’t wait until you’re thirsty to “snack” on fluids. One good trick to see if you are getting enough is to fill a pitcher with six cups of water in the morning and store it in the refrigerator. Use it throughout the day for drinking and making coffee and tea. Pour one out for every glass of milk or juice you drink.

Photo of older adults enjoying a breakfast © iStockPhoto
Yogurt, calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milks are good sources of calcium.

Many seniors fall short on calcium

Many seniors fall short on calcium. You still need about 1,200 to 1,500 mg each day to keep bones strong. Low or non-fat milk is the best source, because it includes vitamin D as well as other nutrients. Lactose-free varieties are now available for those with problems digesting milk. One glass provides 300 mg.

Yogurt, calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milks are also good sources, and taking calcium supplements in pill form is also acceptable. Calcium citrate is better than calcium carbonate plus vitamin D. Don’t take more than 500 mg at any one meal, and don’t take it with a multivitamin that includes iron, as iron interferes with calcium’s absorption.

Senior multivitamins

Many people ask me about vitamins, minerals and food supplements. I recommend that everyone take a senior-formulation multivitamin each day. The evidence is also in for adding more Vitamin D (about 1000 ug/day) and adding anti-oxidants, in the form of 400 IU of vitamin E and 250-500 mg of vitamin C.

If you are considering larger doses of vitamins, or herbs such as gingko biloba, I recommend talking with your doctor first. Some people, especially those on blood-thinning medications like aspirin or Coumadin, may want to avoid such supplements because of possibly dangerous interactions.