Some of the key factors in geriatric health involve access, socialization, depression and exercise, said Paula Hanes, an advanced practice dietitian for Providence Regional Medical Center.
"And once you address these issues, then you can start to talk about specific foods," Hanes said.
Hanes broke it down like this:
For seniors over 65 -- or for the 50-somethings taking care of them -- the key to avoiding malnutrition is to ensure access to healthy food.
"Seniors might be on a limited budget, and we all know that food that is not good for you is cheaper," Hanes said.
So making sure seniors can get to a grocery store with a variety of fresh foods available -- not a quickie mart -- or even a farmers market or a food co-op is a first step.
Making sure seniors are socializing is another issue.
If seniors are living alone or have no social outlets, they are less likely to make meals for themselves or eat the right foods.
These isolated seniors might also be fighting depression or self-medicating with alcohol or other substances, so that eating right-- or at all -- is no longer going to be a priority.
"You won't get up and fix something healthy when you are depressed," Hanes said. "You will eat chips."
As we age, we begin to lose muscle mass. So exercise can compensate for some of that loss and improve appetite.
So it's important for seniors to move around. It doesn't have to be an intense workout. There are exercises seniors can do sitting down, and walking is also recommended.
Other issues seniors deal with are medications that might interfere with the way food tastes or with the ability to absorb nutrients. Also, seniors who wear dentures often don't chew as well as those with their original teeth.
So diets might have to be amended to address these issues.
But once these matters are addressed, then you can start talking about specific nutritional needs, Hanes said.
Hanes listed some of the most important nutrients seniors need as Vitamin D, folate and B-12.
Normally we get Vitamin D from the sun, but here in the Pacific Northwest, we don't get much of that. Also, seniors are often chilly and cover themselves even on nice sunny days.
So to boost the intake of Vitamin D, seniors can eat more low-fat dairy products or dark green, leafy veggies such as kale, or eat more food fortified with it. New American Medical Association guidelines also allow for adults to take a daily Vitamin D supplement of up to 2,000 IUs, Hanes said.
To get more folate, eat foods such as dark leafy greens, peas and beans.
For B-12, meat and seafood are recommended.
Hanes points out that all these nutrients come from eggs.
"Eggs have come and gone (from the black list of foods) and now eggs are back in," Hanes said.
Still, it's best to keep egg consumption to five a week, and it's best to buy eggs that are farm fresh or pay extra for eggs fortified with flax seed or omega-3 fatty acids, another good nutrient for seniors.
Hanes said omega-3s can be obtained from eating walnuts and almonds. She also said there are newer fish oil supplements being produced that are distilled, reducing the "fishy flavor" of these pills.
Hanes also suggested that if seniors are taking non-chewable multivitamins, that they make sure these vitamins are dissolving in their system.
One way to test this is to take the vitamin and put it in some vinegar. If it is not dissolved in about 10 or 15 minutes, then it's probably going right through your system.
Hanes said "the more you spend on a supplement, the more you are paying for its absorbability."
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