As seniors age, the number of health risks they face increases. Heart disease – including hypertension, vascular disease, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease – is the most widespread condition for seniors and the number one cause of death for those over 60. Other top health risks for seniors include cancer, stroke, pneumonia, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s or dementia. These health issues may be due to old age or heredity, but often times they can be prevented by one simple tool – a healthy diet.
While there are medications and treatments to help the symptoms of these diseases, maintaining a healthy diet early on will reduce the risks of developing them, and can play a crucial role in managing their symptoms if they do develop. “The more you do in middle age to prepare yourself for successful aging, the better,” said Sharon Brangman, spokeswoman for the American Geriatrics Society.
Regardless of age, eating well will affect one’s overall health for the better. While it is best to start at an early age, it is never too late to begin eating a healthy diet. For seniors, eating healthy will provide more energy, create faster recuperation times, and prolong mental acuteness.
Obesity and Malnutrition
One condition that is increasingly on the rise among seniors is obesity. The danger of obesity is that not only is it a disease itself, but it is also one of the leading causes of some of the biggest health risks that seniors face. More than 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight; the more that one’s body mass index is over 25, the greater the risk of developing diabetes (source: Agingcare.com). Extra weight increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, joint problems, and some cancers. It will also raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
A healthy diet is one of the most effective ways to lose or maintain weight. Since most seniors reduce the amount of exercise they do as they get older, their calorie intake should be reduced as well. Metabolism slows more and more with each year over 40, so the number of calories burned will decrease automatically. Adding extra calories will cause weight gain.
A woman over 50 who is:
• Not physically active needs about 1600 calories a day
• Somewhat physically active needs about 1800 calories a day
• Very active needs about 2000 calories a day
A man over 50 who is:
• Not physically active needs about 2000 calories a day
• Somewhat physically active needs about 2200-2400 calories a day
• Very active needs about 2400-2800 calories a day
Source: National Institute of Aging
Malnutrition is another health risk that many seniors face. It is caused by not eating enough, a lack of nutrients, and digestion problems. Malnutrition causes fatigue, anemia, and a weakened immune system. Sometimes loneliness and depression can cause an increase or decrease in eating. To combat these, seniors can make a point to not eat alone. Dinner dates, adult day-care centers, and senior meal programs are great options for creating a social atmosphere, which will stimulate the mind and help a senior eat better.
The Basics: What Seniors Should Eat
While calorie intake is important to monitor in order to lose or maintain weight, eating healthy does not have to be about sticking to a strict diet. It is more about quality than quantity. One can eat an abundance of nutrient dense foods that contain less calories and still feel satisfied after each meal. It’s important to remember that it is easier to transition into eating healthier foods by substituting one thing at a time at each meal. For example, switch a cookie with a handful of fresh berries; or try eating a slice of whole grain toast instead of using white bread. Replace unhealthy amounts of salt with other herbs while cooking. Small steps like this will help your body stop craving unhealthy foods, and start craving healthy ones.
Protein and Dairy
Eating high-quality protein will decrease muscle loss and help seniors maintain physical and mental function longer. Too much low-quality protein – red meat, processed meats – can increase risk of heart disease and cancer. Seniors should replace low-quality protein with a variety of fish, skinless chicken and turkey, eggs, beans, and plant-based proteins. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and nuts can improve focus and decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Aging adults need to uptake their intake of calcium to maintain bone health. A good source of protein and calcium is low-fat milk or cheese, but calcium can also be found in nuts and certain vegetables.
Fruits and Vegetables
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the more colorful, the better. Bright fruits and dark, leafy greens are packed with vitamins. Two servings of fruits and vegetables a day can increase life expectancy. Seniors should choose fresh produce over canned goods to avoid added sugars and syrups, and whole fruits instead of fruit juices for more vitamins.
Reducing one’s sugar intake is essential for good health, but may be harder than it seems. Processed foods and snacks (even low-fat ones) usually contain large amounts of sugar. Often times, they are hidden by other names like fructose, molasses, or corn syrup. Eating fruit is a healthy way to satisfy a sugar craving.
As adults age, their digestion becomes less efficient, so it is important to eat plenty of high dietary fiber. Whole grains, oatmeal, tomatoes, beans, nuts, apples and berries all contain fiber that will help prevent heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Dietary fiber also improves the health of the skin, boosts the immune system, and helps with weight loss. Seniors should watch their carbohydrate intake, and avoid bad carbohydrates like white flour, refined sugar and white rice. These digest quickly and will cause spikes in blood sugar and short-lived energy.
Eating healthy is not as challenging as it seems, as long as seniors know the basics. Even if a senior has difficulty chewing, he or she can make fresh fruit smoothies and enjoy soft foods like whole grain rice. Seniors that can’t shop for themselves can take advantage of home-delivered groceries or meal delivery services. When it comes to living a long, healthy life and reducing the risk of diseases, taking the few extra steps to eating a healthy diet is worth it.
Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.