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Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
World Health Organization

Eating Well As You Grow Older

Edited by Ahmad B. Naim, MD

Guyana Journal, March 2008

As you grow older, the demand for food by the body changes. Eating well in your later years can strengthen the immune system, improve your mental health, and increase your physical energy. Below are few tips that can help you eat healthily to improve your overall health.

What to expect
As you age, certain factors such as lifestyle changes and physical activity can work against your desire to eat healthily.

Lifestyle Changes: Single seniors, especially men, may be novices at cooking their own meals or they just may not feel like cooking. Also, folks on fixed budgets and limited incomes might have trouble affording a balanced, healthy diet.

Decreased Physical Activity: A large number of seniors have limited physical activity that could be due to medical reasons. This could mean fewer calories burned which could result in weight gain.

Slow Metabolism: After you reach age 40, your metabolism slows down with each passing year. This means you burn calories at a slower rate. So, if you keep eating the same amount and kinds of food as when you were younger, this will likely result in weight gain.

Health Issues: Physical ailments and prescription medications can influence appetite. You should always talk to your doctor to find out if this is the case with you and the medicines you take.

Digestion: Saliva and stomach acid production also decreases in old age, which makes it more difficult for the body to digest food and provide the essential vitamins and minerals that you need to keep your bones healthy, have a sharp memory, and have good circulation of your blood.
Emotional Factors: Loneliness and depression can affect your diet as well. Feeling depressed can lead to either a lack of eating or, for some, it could mean overeating. Again, your doctor can help you treat depression or other medical problems you may have.

What to change
The above factors can increase your risk of having fragile bones, memory loss, and decreased mental alertness. Knowing what to eat and making timely changes can make a big difference in your mental and physical health.

Here are a few simple tips that can help:

  • Eating less salt helps prevent high blood pressure.
  • Monitoring the fat and cholesterol content of your food can help to maintain a good cholesterol level.
  • Consuming more calcium and vitamin D improves bone health.
  • Eating foods high in fiber prevents constipation,
  • Consuming fresh fruit and vegetables helps in achieving appropriate daily vitamin and mineral requirements.
  • Drinking lots of water helps to keep the kidneys healthy.
  • Exercising helps maintain good bone and muscle strength.

Try to avoid processed and refined foods, as they usually contain more calories and salt, and have fewer nutrients.

What to eat
There are numerous ways you can have a healthy meal. Below are some suggestions:

  • Eat whole grains such as brown rice, wheat bread, and rolled oats instead of refined products such as white bread, white rice, etc.
  • Take 2-3 daily servings of ?raw foods? such as fruit and vegetables. Raw foods contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that help in digestion.
  • Steam your vegetables as this preserves the nutrients. You can also sauté them to add flavor to your food. Do not boil them as this leeches the nutrients out of the vegetables.
  • Eat protein. Good sources are fish, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, tofu. You can vary these from day to day giving you lots of choices. Baked, broiled, grilled, steamed, or poached meat is easy to cook and can be flavorful. Avoid red, salty meats such as bacon or ham.
  • Enjoy dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. These are good sources of calcium, which is essential for healthy bones. Certain dairy products like cream cheese, cream, and butter do not have enough calcium. Also, you should choose fat-free or low fat dairy products.
  • If you do cook with oil, try to cook with olive oil or sunflower oil as they have "good" fats.
  • Drink water and eat foods with high water content such as melons, grapes, cucumbers, onions, apples, cabbage, and soup. Staying properly hydrated flushes the kidneys and can prevent constipation.

Not feeling hungry
This is common in seniors and could be due to medications or other factors such as physical ailments or bland foods. Your doctor can help you with adjusting the medication dose or changing it altogether. The following can also help:

  • Add more taste to your food by using olive oil, vinegar, spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and garlic.
  • Try something different, like a new soup or omelette.
  • Experiment with recipes created especially for seniors.
  • Use your imagination with leftovers in creating new dishes or casseroles.

Dislike eating alone
If eating alone is keeping you from enjoying a good meal, then consider the following:

  • Visit family often if they live near-by; perhaps invite them over for lunch or dinner.
  • Invite old friends to your home for potluck parties on a regular basis.
  • Make new friends by joining a class or activity or volunteering.
  • Get in touch with the local senior center, YMCA, or a meal program.
  • Share your home by renting it out to a student or a young couple.

Dislike cooking
Depending on location and finances, you can do various things to overcome this and still have a delicious and nutritious meal. Try the following:

  • Order home delivery through your local deli or grocery store.
  • Swap services. Ask a friend, neighborhood teen or college student if they would be willing to shop for you, in exchange for sharing a meal with friends at your house later in the week. This solves two needs at once – buying groceries and providing dining companionship.
  • Use a personal chef service as they usually prepare delicious and wholesome meals often for a week at a time. They can also make special meals based on dietary restrictions.
  • Barter services with a housemate or neighbor. You can do groceries or other chores while they cook for you.
  • Look for a community assistance program such as ?Meals on wheels?.

Some of the above could be hard work or just harder to change old habits. However, the benefits could be quite high in the form of increased energy, good mental health, and increased resistance to disease. The overall result of an emphasis on good nutrition will be an improvement in your quality of life, mobility, and independence.

Dr. Naim is trained in Internal Medicine and Public Health and currently works as a Health Economics and Clinical Outcomes Researcher in PA.