Vitality - Healthy Aging NewsletterFall 2012

Eat Right for Your Evolving Needs

Dietary changes can improve health at any age, but are even more important as we grow older.

Go to: Vitality newsletter index

Gene SmithTwo years ago, member Gene Smith from Lacey was diagnosed with high cholesterol, poor kidney function, elevated liver function, and type 2 diabetes. Today his cholesterol, kidney, liver, and blood sugar levels are all within normal range — and he's 40 pounds lighter.

How did he do it? Through exercise and diet.

"I learned all I could about nutrition and my health conditions, and then changed my diet significantly,” he says. "I began paying attention to portions; increased my fiber intake; stopped eating eggs, red meat, and sweets; and cut way down on high glycemic foods." He also kept a detailed record of his diet.

"One thing I found was that my kidneys had been stressed because I wasn't drinking enough liquids."

Dietary changes can improve health at any age, but are even more critical as we grow older. "A healthy diet can help you manage common medical problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer as well as recover more quickly from illness, injury, or surgeries," says Chris Fordyce, MD, medical director for the Group Health Healthy Aging Program.

Nutrition needs change as we age. This makes it necessary to adjust our diets accordingly. For example, because of an increased risk of osteoporosis, we need more calcium and vitamin D to keep our bones strong. Our cholesterol is on the rise, so limiting animal products and choosing healthy fats, lean protein, and foods with dietary fiber is essential. We're more prone to high blood pressure, so it's time to nix the salt; limit processed foods high in sodium; eat lean meat, poultry, and fish; and pick low-fat or fat-free dairy products.

Gradually Increase Fiber

Constipation is not uncommon, and many people will begin to experience problems with movement of food through the colon. In fact, by age 60 at least 50 percent of us will have diverticulosis, a condition caused in part by a diet low in fiber. "Adequate fiber is absolutely vital, especially as we get older," says Group Health dietitian Terri Fox, RD. Not only can it help prevent diverticulosis, normalize bowel movements, lower cholesterol, and control blood sugar levels by slowing digestion and absorption, it can even lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Increase your dietary fiber by eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes. But take it easy. "Too much, too quickly can cause intestinal gas, abdominal bloating, and cramping," says Fox. "The secret is to increase slowly so your bowels can adjust."

Fox also advises that you relax, eat slowly, and fix smaller, more frequent meals.

Same Nutrients, Fewer Calories

Our calorie needs also change in later years. Because our metabolism slows down — in part due to less physical activity — we don't need as many calories. However, we still need the same amount of nutrients.

"The most under-recognized threat to good health is what we don't eat, whether it's calories or essential vitamins and minerals," says Fox. In order to make every calorie count, skip the sugar and choose nutrient-dense foods such as whole-grain breads and cereals, rice, beans, lean meats, seafood, and fruits and vegetables. When choosing produce, think of the colors of the rainbow. A variety delivers maximum nutritional and health benefits.

If a health or age-related issue is preventing you from getting the calories and nutrients you need, try these strategies:

  • For difficulty with chewing and swallowing, make blended smoothies with fresh fruit, yogurt, and protein powder.
  • Steam vegetables until soft; and choose rice and hot cereals.
  • To make up for a smaller appetite, snack between meals on fruit, carrot and celery sticks, nuts, low-fat cheese, peanut butter and whole-grain crackers, or a nutritional drink such as Ensure.

Learn to prepare savory dishes if your sense of taste or smell has been diminished due to chronic illness or certain medications. Don't reach for the salt, which can increase water retention and high blood pressure. Instead, experiment with natural flavor enhancers such as lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, onions, ginger, cumin, and other herbs and spices.

Smith says that finding tasty food choices kept him on track. "I knew that if I found healthy food I enjoyed eating, I'd be able to stick with it," he says. How does he feel today? "I’m Rollerblading and riding my bike again. I feel terrific."

How Many Calories Do You Need?

It's easier to put on pounds as we age because our metabolism slows down and we're exercising less. In fact, the obesity epidemic is fastest growing in people 65 years and older.

However, the flip side is equally alarming. Seniors who suffer from malnutrition tend to be underweight. That’s why it's important to get enough calories, and make sure that they're packed with nutrients. Here's a handy chart showing how many calories you may need to maintain a healthy weight.

Gender Not physically active Moderately active* Active**
Women over 501,600 calories1,800 calories2,000-2,200 calories
Men over 502,000-2,200 calories2,200-2,400 calories2,400-2,800 calories

*Moderately active: Walking briskly 1 1/2 to 3 miles per day, biking at a leisurely pace, light yard work.
**Active: Walking briskly more than 3 miles per day, jogging, swimming, cross-country skiing.
Source: National Institute of Aging

Note: This article has been revised since its orginal publication.

Other sites: Providers | Producers | Employers