How to Improve Nutrition for Seniors

Scientists have yet to discover the silver bullet that will reverse the effects of aging. But there are still plenty of common-sense measures you can take to keep your health and well-being right where you want them. The retirement years are a time when you need fewer calories, but as much—if not more—nutrition; so you have to build a dietary strategy that makes every calorie count. This is also a time when a few basic changes can help fend off the ravages of heart disease, high blood pressure, brittle bones, and other disorders that frequently—but not inevitably—accompany our later years. The dietary tactics for fighting these “diseases of maturity” are covered separately. Here we’re examining the best ways to optimize your overall health.

The Obstacles We Face

No matter what we do, advancing years make it harder to stay in shape. As we age, the rate at which we store and burn energy slows down. We begin to lose muscle mass, while the percentage of fat in the body gradually rises, peaking at age 70, then beginning to decline again. As aging continues, the heart muscle becomes taut and pumps blood less efficiently, making healthy physical activity more difficult. The bones grow porous and stiff, eventually posing the danger of fractures. The liver and kidneys begin to shrink—ultimately to little more than half their original size—diminishing the body’s ability to handle alcohol, medications, and minerals. The stomach’s capacity to produce the acid needed for digestion also declines, sometimes leading to hidden malnutrition.

Compounding these problems, many people begin to have trouble with their teeth and gums as their later years approach—ultimately losing their ability to enjoy a healthy meal. At the same time, the senses of taste and smell tend to decline. Bitter tastes begin to prevail over more pleasing sweet and sour flavors; and food becomes less appealing just when the body could benefit from a nutritional boost. Together, all these changes conspire to make a carefully planned diet more important than at any other time of life.

 

Is Your Diet Up To Par?

This quick self-test for people over 65 was developed by the Nutrition Screening Initiative, a consortium of three dozen medical and government organizations led by the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Dietetic Association, and the National Council on the Aging.

Circle the number of each statement that applies to you; add up your points, then check your total against the nutritional scores.

1. An ongoing illness or current condition has made me change the kind or amount of food I eat. (2 points)
2. I eat fewer than two full meals per day. (3 points)
3. I eat few fruits, vegetables, or milk products. (2 points)
4. I have three or more drinks of beer, liquor, or wine almost every day. (2 points)
5. I have tooth or mouth problems that make eating hard for me. (2 points)
6. I don’t always have enough money for the food I need. (4 points)
7. I eat alone most of the time. (1 point)
8. I take three or more different prescription or over-the-counter drugs a day. (1 point)
9. Without meaning to, I have lost or gained ten pounds in the past six months. (2 points)
10. I am not always physically able to shop, cook, or feed myself. (2 points)
Total: ______
Nutritional Scores
0-2: No problem. Recheck your status in six months.
3-5: Your diet could stand some improvement. Check with your local Office on Aging for information on available programs. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging Eldercare Locator can assist in finding help. Call (800) 677-1116 toll-free. Recheck in three months.
6 or
more:
You have a real problem. Don’t hesitate to tell your doctor, registered dietitian or local social worker about this test and see what can be done to help.

 

Barriers to a Decent Diet

Despite the greater importance of nutrition, many older people wind up eating less. Nearly half of all older hospital patients are believed to be at moderate risk for malnutrition, and at least 15 percent are actually malnourished. As many as three out of five nursing home residents are believed to be undernourished. Even retirees with full Social Security and pension benefits often lack proper nutrition. About 16 percent of older people living at home eat less than 1,000 calories a day—too little to support adequate nutrition.

The problem stems both from eating the wrong kinds of food and from simply not eating enough. As the biological clock winds down and the body begins to lose mass, many older people find that their interest in food—and, sometimes, their appetite for it—has also diminished. Even though the demand for calories declines as we age, our intake may drop too low to meet even these reduced requirements. Add to this the fact that the body’s need for some nutrients actually increases with age, and it’s easy to see how malnutrition can develop.

Some researchers suspect that the biological mechanisms controlling our food intake become less responsive as we age. Consequently, when elderly people are recovering from an illness or injury, their normal appetite may not return as quickly as a younger adult’s. In this way, a temporary illness can set off a long-term nutritional problem. The array of medications that many older people must take on a continuing basis can also lead to a deficiency if one of them suppresses the appetite or alters taste sensations. It’s true, too, that for many older people, shopping and cooking becomes too much of a chore. Their mobility is more limited. Labels are harder to read. Big supermarkets, with their sprawling aisles and busy parking lots, present a growing challenge.

The loss of a spouse can be an especially damaging blow at this point—in terms of physical health as well as emotional well-being. Loneliness and depression, which seem to strike older men particularly hard, can easily destroy the appetite. Indeed, the weight loss, light-headedness, disorientation, lethargy, and loss of appetite that are often diagnosed as illness in the elderly are actually the consequences of clinical depression.

Robbed of the motivation of cooking for two, and daunted by the demands of the big shopping centers, too many older people find themselves subsisting on convenience-store items—canned soups, candy, and snack foods. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to break out of this rut.

If you suspect you’re depressed, talk to your doctor about it; the problem can be remedied. If you think one of your medications may be affecting your appetite, see about having it changed. There are alternatives for virtually any drug you take; and even a change in dosage could have a beneficial effect.

To get more variety in your diet, you can plan shopping trips with friends. There are plenty of healthy, easy to prepare items to be had at the supermarket for far less than the cost of convenience foods. Try to dine out more frequently, either with friends or at the local community center or church. And if your budget is becoming a problem, you owe it to yourself to look into available sources of help. Contact your local Agency on Aging. You may be eligible for foods stamps and other meal programs. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of them. Remember that you’ve been supporting them with your tax dollars long before you ever needed them yourself.

 

Consequences of Malnutrition

Some problems we blame on age may be nothing more than the results of poor diet. Taking extra pains to boost your daily intake of nutrients can reduce your odds of all the following maladies:
Anemia Mental impairment
Bed sores Swollen ankles
Drug toxicities Thyroid problems
Fatigue Very low blood pressure
Hip fracture Weakness
Infections
Source: The Merck Manual of Geriatrics, Second Edition, 1995.

 

Super-Charging Your Diet For Your Later Years

As you approach retirement, your nutritional requirements definitely undergo a change. Although your demand for calories may decline slightly, your need for protein, calcium, and a number of vitamins is on the rise. To fully meet these escalating requirements, experts recommend maintaining the complete daily menu prescribed in the government’s Food Pyramid:

At least two to three servings of milk, cheese, or other dairy products such as yogurt or cottage cheese. A serving equals one cup of milk or yogurt, or two cups of cottage cheese.
Two or three servings daily of protein-rich foods such as poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, or lean meat. One serving might include a half-cup of tuna, two ounces of meat loaf, two fish sticks, two eggs, one cup of baked beans, or four tablespoons of peanut butter.
Five or more servings of fruits and vegetables, including a citrus fruit and a dark green leafy vegetable. Half a cup of corn, green beans, mashed potatoes, strawberries, or fruit cocktail each qualify as a serving.
Six to eleven servings of foods made from whole grains or enriched flours. Half a bagel or English muffin; half a cup of cooked rice, noodles, or hot cereal; or one ounce of ready-to-eat cereal each equal a serving.
Six to eight glasses of water or liquid daily. Fruit or vegetable juices and milk count towards this requirement.
Go light on fats and sweets, such as jellies, candies, mayonnaise, salad dressing, and butter or margarine.

That may sound like a lot of food, especially now that we’re all so diet conscious. On balance, however, medical experts say we should be more concerned about adequate calorie intake as we grow older, rather than worrying about too many calories. Indeed, most seniors consume only 1,200-1,600 calories per day, so experts recommend that their food choices be packed with nutrients. If you can’t eat enough because you fill up too quickly, try having smaller but more frequent meals throughout the day.

In evaluating older patients, some doctors have begun to challenge the validity of the standard height and weight tables used by insurance companies to establish “ideal” weights according to sex and body type. Originally intended for younger adults, these tables have become benchmarks for older people for lack of any other standard. Despite these tables, an average weight gain of 5 pounds per decade, beginning in your 40s, is now considered normal.

Total weight is not the only indicator of your health. The ratio of muscle to fat and the distribution of fat are believed to be just as important. Studies have found that people with weight concentrated around the waist rather than the hips face a higher risk of a heart attack.

If you are truly overweight, it’s clear that you ought to cut back on calories. Remember, though, that you must be careful to avoid shortchanging yourself of essential nutrients in the process.

Make Sure You Get Protein

Protein is the basic material in all body cells, including those in your muscles, organs, skin, bones, blood, hormones, and hair. It enables the cells to grow and helps the body to resist disease.

As the body’s calorie intake declines, the share of protein needed in your diet rises. It’s crucial, therefore, that you keep the protein content of your diet up to par. While an extra high-protein diet can leech some of the calcium from your bones and weaken them, too little protein will impair your body’s ability to maintain and repair tissue.

Meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs are rich sources of protein. Although many contain fat and cholesterol, some foods from this group should be part of your diet every day. Plant foods such as dry peas and beans, grains, nuts, and seeds also contain protein and are especially valuable in combination with animal or other plant proteins.

 

Six Dietary Targets for Your Retirement Years (and Before)

1. Get plenty of calcium.
For older women in particular, developing the brittle bones of osteoporosis is a major threat. Go heavy on dairy products, making sure they’re low-fat; and ask your doctor about taking a calcium supplement. Even if you’re a man, you can’t afford to short-change yourself on calcium. Osteoporosis doesn’t strike men as often as women, but it is still a risk.
4. Go easy on fat and cholesterol.
For some people in their middle years, excessive fat and cholesterol can lead to heart disease. Although recent research suggests that once you are in your 70’s, this may no longer be a threat, it’s probably wise to hedge your bet and keep fat at moderate levels anyway.

2. Eat more low-fat protein.
As a share of your diet, your protein requirement goes up as you grow older. However, you still need to keep a tight lid on fat and cholesterol. The solution: increase your intake of beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and grains. These plant products supply extra protein without blowing your budget for fat.

5. Keep an eye on your salt intake.
As you grow older, your sensitivity to salt increases. This can aggravate high blood pressure, kidney disease, and congestive heart failure—all of which become more likely as you age. If you don’t have high blood pressure, you can be a little more relaxed; but it’s still a good idea to keep salt intake to a minimum.

3. Boost your intake of fruit, vegetables, and grains.
The need to emphasize the complex carbohydrates found in these foods doesn’t change as you age—and the fiber many of these products supply is an important dividend for older people. A little extra fiber helps keep the digestive system in good order, and can lower your cholesterol levels as well.

6. Cut back on alcohol and caffeine.
Older bodies have less tolerance for both. “Overdoses” of caffeinated coffee could be the root of a number of problems, ranging from sleep problems to irregular heartbeat. Too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, liver disease, and increased odds of several cancers.

 

Boost Carbohydrates and Fiber

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. Between 40 and 50 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, and most of these should be complex carbohydrates, or starches, which are digested more slowly and provide more sustained energy. Sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grain breads and cereals, pastas, potatoes, and vegetables. Fruits and milk products are the only simple carbohydrates, or sugars, that you should include in your diet on a regular basis. Cut down on sweet desserts, candy, honey, and other sugary foods, which boost your calorie intake but not your nutrition.

Many sources of complex carbohydrates also provide dietary fiber, or roughage, which offers additional health benefits to seniors. Dietary fiber helps prevent constipation and other intestinal disorders such as diverticulosis. A diet high in fiber also helps to control blood sugar and lower blood cholesterol levels. And despite recent studies to the contrary, many experts continue to believe that it may protect against colorectal cancer.

To get this protective effect, the experts say you need to adopt a fiber-rich regimen at no later than 40 to 50 years of age. This is because rates of colorectal cancer start rising sharply after the age of 60, and research suggests that protection is needed for 10 to 20 years beforehand.

While natural sources of fiber certainly aid the digestive process and may provide other benefits, fiber is not a tonic for old age. If you eat the recommended amounts of whole grain cereals and breads, vegetables, and fruits, there’s no need to take a supplement unless your doctor tells you to.

 

Managing the Digestive Problems of the Later Years

Disorders of the digestive tract cause more hospital admissions than any other group of diseases, and they strike middle-aged and older adults the most.

Constipation becomes more of a problem as we grow older, and diet is often to blame. Seniors who have difficulty chewing may shun needed high-fiber foods in favor of a soft, processed diet. Lack of exercise and inadequate fluid intake make the problem worse. But rather than reaching for a laxative, which can interfere with the absorption of minerals and other nutrients, consider new ways of getting fiber into your diet and drink plenty of water.

Some whole grain products can be tough on the teeth, but there are plenty of softer alternatives including oatmeal, stewed or canned fruits, beans, steamed vegetables, brown rice, and salad. A boost in your intake of these foods will also reduce your risk of developing diverticulosis, in which small sacs form on the wall of the large intestine—often causing abdominal pain.

The stomach’s ability to produce the acid needed to digest food also decreases with age, leading to additional digestive problems. Heartburn, which results from a backflow of gastric juices into the esophagus, also becomes more likely. It can be minimized by avoiding rich or spicy foods such as tomato products, fried foods, and chocolate. Eating small, frequent meals, using antacids judiciously, and sitting up for several hours after eating also help to control the problem. (Check with your doctor, however, before assuming the problem is heartburn—it could be your heart! For more on this and other digestive problems, turn to “Dealing with Digestive Disorders.”)

Milk, or lactose, intolerance is also more common in older adults. It is caused by an age-related decline in levels of lactase—the intestinal enzyme that digests the sugar found in milk. Symptoms include cramps, gas, bloating, and diarrhea after consuming milk or a milk product. You can often manage the problem successfully by mixing milk with food or other beverages, eating processed cheeses and yogurt, or eating smaller and more frequent servings. You can also switch to a lactose-reduced milk product such as Lactaid, or to acidophilus milk, which contains an additive that makes milk easier to digest. For more on lactose intolerance, see “When Good Food Makes You Feel Bad: Living with Allergy.”

 

Cut Back on Fats and Cholesterol

Despite all the claims and commercials for “light,” “lean,” and “reduced fat” foods, fat is not all bad. In fact, it contains essential nutrients and allows your cells to function properly.

Fats have many important functions. They make food more appetizing by adding flavor, aroma, and texture. They help to maintain healthy skin—a major concern for older adults, whose skin can become thin and fragile. Fats also carry the fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E, and K—and are needed to help the body absorb these important nutrients.

The problem with fat is that we generally get too much of a good thing. In older adults, as in the young, no more than 30 percent of total calories should come from fat. Of the various types of fat, the most beneficial are the mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in plants. These include corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, olives and olive oil, peanuts and peanut oil, and peanut butter. Saturated fats and cholesterol are less desirable. To cut down on them limit your intake of eggs and organ meat, as well as butter, cream, lard, mayonnaise, salad dressings, gravies, sauces, and snack foods such as potato chips.

A great deal of confusion exists about the relationship between dietary fat and cholesterol—particularly in older adults. Cholesterol is essential for proper nerve function and other vital processes, but our bodies are quite capable of producing all that we need. The American Heart Association advises adults to limit cholesterol consumption to about 300 milligrams per day, or about the amount in one egg yolk. For some people, intake above that level can lead to accumulations in the blood that build up inside the walls of the arteries, a principal cause of heart attacks and strokes.

Although two-thirds of the 12 million U.S. adults with heart disease are over 65, medical authorities disagree over the impact of cholesterol on seniors. According to an expert government panel, lowering your cholesterol levels can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack even if you’re over 65. However, some physicians now maintain that cholesterol levels in the mid-200s—considered relatively high for younger adults—pose little risk for seniors.

The reason for the disagreement is conflicting research. Numerous long-standing studies have indicated that elevated blood cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of heart disease in people over 65. Several more recent studies, however, have failed to confirm this link in otherwise healthy adults over the age of 70. Reducing cholesterol levels may not make much sense for people in their 80s and 90s, these researchers have suggested.

What, then, should you do? The American Heart Association recommends that apparently healthy adults without cardiac risk factors have their total cholesterol and “good” cholesterol (HDL) checked every five years up to age 60. After that, such screening is optional. If rechecks turn up high cholesterol levels, take the same measures to reduce cholesterol that the Heart Association recommends for adults of any age.

 

Diabetes: Your Risk Increases with Age

About one-fifth of adults over 65 have diabetes-impairment in their ability to utilize blood sugar (glucose). Levels of unused glucose in the blood gradually increase in everyone after age 50, but outright diabetes—the inability to convert enough blood sugar into needed energy—is much less common. Most older adults have type 2 diabetes, which can be treated in several ways.

If you develop a mild case of diabetes, you may be able to control your blood sugar with nothing more than strict adherence to a special, low-sugar diet. If that doesn’t work, your doctor will prescribe a glucose-lowering drug or, if need be, insulin. In any event, the condition is not something to take lightly since numerous studies have shown that people with even mildly elevated blood glucose levels face a greater chance of heart disease, stroke, blindness, and loss of limbs due to poor circulation. For more on the latest treatments for this dangerous disease, see “Coping with Diabetes: The Basic Rules to Remember.”)

 

To cut your blood cholesterol, you not only must reduce your dietary intake, but must cut back on saturated fats as well. Although these fats are not cholesterol themselves, they can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood.

As most recovering heart patients have already learned, reducing the fat and cholesterol in your diet is rarely easy. Nevertheless, there are a number of relatively painless strategies for cutting back as outlined in “What To Do About Fat.”

If your health is generally good, and you decide that the opportunity to enjoy your favorite foods outweighs the possible benefit of a lower cholesterol profile, you do have some research on your side.

Remember, however, that cholesterol is only one of the culprits in heart disease. For greatest safety, you still need to get regular exercise, stop smoking if possible, and keep your weight under control.

 

Meeting the Challenge of Alzheimer’s

Trying to upgrade the diet of someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of memory impairment may be an unrealistically ambitious project. Remembering or understanding dietary instructions or preparing a new dish may be nearly impossible for an older adult with this tragic condition. Even early in the disease, when normal body functions remain intact, people with memory loss may resist changes to their routine. If you attempt to change their diet, they may become agitated or simply refuse to eat.

Instead of playing by strict—and sometimes controversial—nutritional rules, focus on the individual’s food preferences. If maintaining weight is a problem, try serving milk shakes and custards with regular meals. The keys to meeting the nutritional needs of someone with Alzheimer’s are kindness, patience, and persistence.

Go Heavy on the Calcium

Unlike the debate over cholesterol, scientists vehemently agree that older people should pay extra attention to their calcium intake. Postmenopausal women and older men are faced with the threat of osteoporosis, which thins the bones and can lead to crippling—even fatal—fractures of the wrist, spine, and hip. Aging interferes with your body’s ability to absorb calcium, and reduced physical activity further impairs calcium absorption. A diet extra high in protein, fat, and fiber, excessive consumption of alcohol and caffeine, and smoking also heighten your risk.

To build and maintain bone in later life, calcium-rich foods and vitamin D are essential. Lowfat milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products are ideal sources of calcium. If you’re unable to drink milk because you’re lactose-intolerant, other calcium-rich foods include tofu, green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale, and pinto and kidney beans. You may also want to consider taking supplementary calcium and vitamin D. For more information, see “Sure Fire Way to Prevent Brittle Bones.”

Consider Extra Vitamins and Minerals

Conventional wisdom argues that a healthy, well-balanced diet will provide all the vitamins and minerals you need to meet the extra demands of aging. For the many older people who don’t eat enough, however, this assurance is somewhat beside the point. For them, a balanced, moderate vitamin/mineral supplement can make a lot of sense. Special situations may also call for supplementation. We’ve already looked at the need for calcium. In addition, people recovering from illness or surgery may need extra vitamin C and zinc to promote the healing of skin wounds. Dieters and heavy drinkers can also benefit from supplements.

Deficiencies in vitamin B12 are common in people over 70 years of age. And several recent medical studies and an endorsement from the Alliance for Aging Research in Washington, DC, support sharply higher amounts of daily antioxidant supplementation—specifically, 250 to 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C and 100 to 400 International Units of vitamin E—in the hope of improving immunity, reducing coronary artery disease, and decreasing the risk of infection in old age. In studies conducted in the U.S. and Canada, older patients who received a multivitamin supplement with higher levels of these nutrients showed significant improvement in their immune systems and a reduction in infection-related illnesses.

 

Your Medications: How Many Do You Really Need?

More than three-fourths of Americans 65 and older take at least one prescription drug, and many take several. The more drugs you take, the greater your risk of drug interactions, which can ruin your appetite, cancel the effects of a drug, and cause dangerous side effects such as dizziness, confusion, fatigue, memory loss, and depression. Moreover, as one specialist after another writes prescriptions, an estimated one in four older adults winds up taking too many, or the wrong kinds, of medicine.

Many drugs can alter your nutritional status. For instance, if you take a water pill (diuretic) for high blood pressure or congestive heart failure, you may be losing excessive amounts of potassium, calcium and other important minerals—losses you can ill afford if your diet contains inadequate amounts of these nutrients to begin with. For other potential conflicts between drugs and your diet, see “Foods to Watch Out For When Taking Medication.”

Although it’s dangerous to suddenly stop taking certain medications—particularly blood pressure drugs and heart medication—you should schedule annual “brown bag” reviews of your drugs with your doctor. Gather all of your medications—including over-the-counter medicines such as cough syrups and pain relievers—dump them in a bag, and sit down with your doctor or pharmacist to see whether some should be changed or discontinued altogether. It’s not unusual to find that you’re taking two different drugs that do the same things, or two that cancel each other out.

 

The Alliance also used to recommend a daily intake of 10 to 30 milligrams of beta-carotene through food or supplements. Since 1996, however, it has advised people at high risk of cancer to avoid beta-carotene supplements and obtain recommended levels through diet alone. This is because of two studies that failed to confirm any significant health benefits from beta-carotene supplementation. (In fact, one study found that beta-carotene supplements may actually produce a very slight increase in the risk of lung cancer among heavy smokers and asbestos workers.) For people not at high risk of cancer, the Alliance continues to approve of beta-carotene supplements, but only in doses of no more than 10 milligrams daily.

On the other hand, there’s no question that megadoses (10 or more times the Recommended Daily Allowance) of vitamin and mineral supplements can be dangerous, since the aging kidneys or liver may not be able to get rid of the excess. Whenever you take a nutrient in amounts that exceed what your body can handle, you court the risk of side effects. For example, too much vitamin A can cause headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and eventually liver and bone damage. High doses of vitamin D can cause kidney damage and even death. When taken in excessive amounts, supplemental iron can build up to toxic levels in the liver. And taking too much of one mineral can upset the delicate balance of others. For instance, excess phosphorus interferes with the body’s ability to absorb calcium.

It’s true, too, that many nutritional claims remain controversial. For instance, research on fish oil’s ability to reduce the risk of heart disease has produced conflicting results, with some studies showing significant benefits and others finding little to report. Likewise, assertions that vitamin B15 reverses the aging process lack much scientific justification. As a rule of thumb, it’s wise to be cautious about sharply jacking up your intake of any individual vitamin or mineral without first consulting your doctor. He or she can recommend supplements at a dose that is safe and sensible, making allowance for your age, medical condition, and any medications you take. Remember, too, that a hodgepodge of pills and potions will never work as a substitute for a complete, balanced diet.

Put a Lid on Salt

As we grow older, salt becomes more of a problem for us. The sodium in table salt is a necessary part of life. It helps to maintain blood volume, regulate water balance, transmit nerve impulses, and perform other vital functions. It appears naturally in a variety of foods, including cheeses, eggs, meat, and fish, yet many of us continue to pour on additional sodium in the form of table salt.

As taste sensations diminish with advancing years, it’s tempting to compensate by adding even more salt. However, this can be harmful, particularly for older adults. Excess sodium is normally pulled from the body by the kidneys. But aging kidneys are notoriously liable to malfunction; and if they cannot process all of the salt, your body compensates by building up fluid. This can lead to high blood pressure which increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, or kidney failure. Excessive sodium intake also can worsen the consequences of existing kidney disease and congestive heart failure.

Removing the salt shaker from the table and avoiding salt during food preparation are two of the best ways to reduce your sodium intake. In addition, check the labels on the foods you buy. Federal laws require commercially prepared foods such as soups, frozen dinners, and other processed items to list their sodium content in the “Nutrition Facts” box, and you’ll find that there are large amounts of sodium hidden in processed foods—everything from breakfast cereals to canned goods. Replace these prepackaged foods with fresh fish and poultry, fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains.

Be especially suspicious of packaged snacks—potato chips, pretzels, crackers, and nuts. They normally contain large amounts of salt. Fresh or dried fruits such as raisins and figs make healthier snacks. Remember, too, that sodium is found in many beverages, such as soft drinks and beer, and in a wide variety of medications. Reducing the sodium in your diet without completely ruining your meals is no easy trick. Nevertheless, it can be done. A liberal dollop of garlic during cooking, a spritz of lemon juice, or a pinch of herbs can repair much of the damage. See “Herbs and Spices: Your Allies for Healthier Meals,” for more ideas.

 

Some Tips for Shopping and Preparing Meals

Plan major shopping expeditions with a friend.
If a package is too big, ask for help. Meat or produce employees can repackage items for you in smaller servings.
Watch out for sodium if you have a blood pressure problem. Manufacturers list the sodium content of their products on the labels. If sodium is one of the first three ingredients listed, the product is high in sodium. When preparing fresh meat and produce, use lemon, pepper, herbs, spices, powdered mustard or finely chopped garlic to flavor foods, rather than salt.
Always keep several days-worth of canned or frozen fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, and soups on hand so you can prepare a good meal even when you can’t get to the grocery store.
Switch from red meat to veal, poultry, fish, seafood, and meat substitutes and increase the number of meatless main dishes on your menu to 3 or more per week.
Use vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, and olive oils instead of butter, lard, and other animal fats.
To cut your workload in the kitchen, prepare large amounts of dishes such as chicken casserole or spaghetti sauce and refrigerate or freeze the leftovers for later use.
Eat with friends. Start a potluck club where each member takes turns hosting the group for dinner, and everyone brings a dish. Everyone gets more variety with less trouble.

 

Cut Down on Caffeine

Like salt, caffeine turns up in unexpected places: chocolate, soft drinks, tea, some aspirin compounds, and other over-the-counter medications. And as we grow older, our tolerance of caffeine declines.

Although caffeine is a stimulant usually consumed precisely for its “kick,” its unpleasant side effects are more likely to surface in our later years. These range from anxiety and irritability to sleep disorders, migraine headaches, diarrhea, indigestion, and irregular heartbeat. Caffeine also can exaggerate the symptoms of older people with muscle tremors, such as those with Parkinson’s disease, and increase the agitation of individuals with dementia.

If you’re used to drinking several cups of coffee, tea, or caffeinated soft drinks daily, consider gradually switching to decaffeinated drinks. You may find that a cup of soup is just as satisfying as tea in the evening or on a cold winter day. And whenever you need a medication, be sure to ask your health care professional or pharmacist to help you select one that doesn’t contain caffeine.

Keep Alcohol to a Minimum

It’s estimated that one of every four older Americans has two or more drinks a day. The ramifications are numerous. Alcohol is a diuretic that can deplete your water volume. Consuming even modest amounts increases your chance of developing osteoporosis, kidney and liver disease, and inflammation of the pancreas. Several studies have linked alcohol to an increased risk of high blood pressure and even cancer. Its high sugar content makes it a bad choice for diabetics. Its empty calories make losing weight more difficult. And nearly half of all prescriptions written for the elderly also interact with alcohol.

With age, the liver’s ability to deal with alcohol declines. Even if you have only one or two drinks a day, you tend to burn the alcohol more slowly, so higher concentrations remain in your blood over a longer period of time—an important point to remember if you need to drive. Most experts agree that, by minimizing or eliminating your alcohol consumption, including beer and wine, you can boost your overall health profile during your later years.

Bon Apetite

Remember, though, that the key to maintaining a really good diet is to think in terms of addition, not subtraction. Cut fat and cholesterol by adding whole grains and vegetables to your diet. Cut salt by adding new flavors like garlic, lemon, herbs, and spices. Add excitement to your meals with new colors and textures to make your plate more eye-appealing. Add more fun to your meals by dining with friends. You worked hard all your life; enjoy your later years to the maximum, and enjoy in good health.

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