Eating healthy is important at any age. However, the standards of a good diet change somewhat as we age. Since the metabolism tends to slow down with age, we need fewer calories. So it’s important to make those calories count by making good nutritional choices.
The basics of healthy eating are sensible. The diet should be a combination of protein, carbohydrates and minimal fats. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) makes it easy to remember and follow a good diet with its Choose My Plate guidelines. It also provides specific guidelines for calorie needs as we age.
There’s good reason to eat carefully as we age. Whether it is due to existing medical conditions, or to prevent those conditions (e.g. high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease etc.) ingredients like sugar, sodium and saturated fat are to be avoided, or kept at a minimum. In other words, at a certain age, now more than ever, we live the motto “we are what we eat”.
In an effort to facilitate a good diet, let’s consider some of the challenges to eating well as we age. For many of our patients at Royal Care, our focus is on the emotional components of companionships and easing loneliness. These factors actually have a tremendous impact on healthy eating.
The truth is, eating is a social endeavor. You know the experience of eating with company: it is more pleasurable, and the meal always tastes better! Well, on the flip side, when people are alone, they can be lax in their eating habits. Older people may be distracted, perhaps depressed, forget to eat or not be attentive to hunger signals and appetite triggers.
So, to combat the problem, consider the following:
- Create company. Have a meal or snack with your loved one, on a consistent basis if possible. Encourage caretakers and others to do the same. To create good associations with the meal, focus on your time together. Create a pleasant atmosphere or go to a nice restaurant, invite family or friends, and accompany the meal with pleasant conversation. Those special occasion meals should be matched by similar positive day-to-day eating experiences as well.
- Water, water everywhere. Age can compromise the thirst mechanism, causing older people not to drink. Although their bodies still need the fluids, chances are that if they don’t feel thirsty, they aren’t getting sufficient amounts of those fluids. A good reminder is to make water or other beverages convenient: put a cup or bottle in various key areas, such as by the bed or living room lounge chair. In addition, use the same ritual to share beverages as you do for meals. After all, a shared cup of tea counts as fluid as well. (Note: a key test of being properly hydrated is the color of a person’s urine: light yellow to clear means someone is likely hydrated. Dark and/or cloudy means someone is likely dehydrated).
- Drink a meal: If appetite is compromised, or cooking or eating solid food represents a challenge for any number of reasons, there are alternatives. While liquid meal replacements are well known, you don’t have to rely solely on those. Try smoothies. All the best nutrition can be blended together in a good-tasting homemade drink– including protein (milk or yogurt), fruits, vegetables and added protein powder or other such desired ingredients.