Healthy eating is a beneficial lifelong habit. It’s never too early or too late to improve.
Since nutrition needs also change depending on age, it’s useful to occasionally reevaluate what’s on your plate.
For those 50 years and older, even a few tweaks to an already wholesome diet contributes to a better quality of life.
“There is very little that happens in our bodies that’s not impacted by good nutrition,” said Martha Peppones, nutrition director for Senior Services of Snohomish County.
Major conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are all affected. Mental health — depression and dementia — can also be influenced by nutrition. Everyday wellness is equally important.
“Fatigue can be a big issue due to lack of energy resulting from a poor-quality diet,” Peppones said.
“Nutrition also plays a very important role in our vision.”
Consult regularly with a doctor who can advise on nutritional changes. Registered dietitians and certified nutritionists can also provide guidance and are sometimes covered by insurance.
Needs over 50
With age, the body’s base metabolism slows down, decreasing the number of needed calories.
Exercise can somewhat offset the impact, but generally not enough to maintain young adult eating habits.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a moderately active adult woman over 51 years old requires 1,800 calories, a man 2,200 to 2,400.
Education on how to read food labels and track your daily diet are invaluable in making better choices.
“Food records are really important,” said Diane Zakrajsek, a registered dietitian and owner of Duvall’s Inner Balance Nutrition.
“Know your daily (calorie) budget. I tell people it’s like a financial budget. You need to know what you’re spending and where.”
Zakrajsek recommends ChooseMyPlate.gov’s free food tracker as a straightforward way to manage your daily diet.
Additionally, some nutrition needs increase with age even as caloric needs decline.
“The real challenge becomes getting all the nutrition you need within a lower calorie limit. All your calories need to count. There isn’t as much discretionary room,” Peppones said.
Older adults require more calcium and vitamin D for bones. It is important to have both since vitamin D is essential in helping the body absorb calcium.
Women should be particularly aware since they are prone to a loss in bone density, which leads to osteoporosis. Good sources include low- or fat-free milk and yogurt, dark green leafy vegetables, and fortified cereals and fruit juices.
“A vitamin B-12 deficiency can lead to a type of anemia and frequently occurs since the body doesn’t absorb it as well as you age,” Peppones said.
“B-12 is pretty available in the food supply and can particularly be found in proteins — meats, and milk. It is also found in fortified foods such as grains and cereal.”
Fiber needs increase, too. Fiber-rich foods improve digestive health and reduce the risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Fiber also wards off weight gain.
Zakrajsek recommends an average of 25 grams a fiber a day, which can be found in whole-grain breads, cereals, beans and most fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables are the superstars of a healthy diet. Aim for a plant-based diet rather than focusing on meat. The USDA recommends that fruits and vegetables fill half your plate.
A rainbow approach includes a variety of items that ensures a balance of nutrients.
Eating in season and shopping at farmers markets are ideal but sometimes unrealistic.
“Frozen and canned are virtually as nutritious,” Peppones said. However, purchase items that do not contain high amounts of added salt or sugar.
For those who are have an uneasy relationship with fruits and vegetables, be creative when incorporating them into your menu.
“If you have a hard time with veggies, who makes the rules that you have to have them at dinner as a side dish?” Zakrajsek said.
“Have them for breakfast. Do an egg scramble with a bit of broccoli or tomatoes. Put berries on your oatmeal instead of sugar or on top of whole-wheat pancakes.”
Another favorite is grilling fruits and vegetables. Zakrajsek recommends grilling pineapples and peaches for dessert topped with a dab of nonfat vanilla yogurt. Healthy and simple, she said.
Pureeing and juicing are popular. If you’re accustomed to using only certain vegetables in a recipe, add a few more. In addition to mushrooms in spaghetti sauce, include green peppers and onions.
Cooking from scratch is the best way to monitor what you eat. Processed and manufactured foods are heavy in sodium, more commonly known as salt. Too much salt is a ubiquitous problem faced by most Americans.
“If you’re in your 70s or 80s,you may not be as active as you used to be or you may have a chronic condition. Sometimes you don’t have the energy to stand and cook every meal.
“We realize that people are going to eat some amount of processed foods. Just steer away from it as much as possible,” Peppones said.
For many older adults, maintaining a healthy diet is often less about what’s on the plate and more about the surrounding circumstances.
Social and financial concerns play a huge role in diet.
“Probably the most common issue older adults have is eating alone,” Peppones said.
“We ask people why they come to our (meal) programs and the majority say it’s to be around other folks.”
For older adults, spending time cooking and eating by themselves can be unappealing, and it can also lead to depression.
Peppones recommends seeking out social interaction at community or senior centers.
Zakrajsek has clients and friends who organize a weekly potluck. Even if they aren’t able to personally attend, they contribute food as social outreach.
Seniors — particularly those on fixed incomes — sometimes also believe they are unable to eat healthily due to budget.
“It’s a myth that you can’t eat healthy because you can’t afford it,” Peppones said. “It’s a challenge and may not be easy, but it is possible.”
Tips include planning meals in advance so you can stretch ingredients for multiple uses.
Buy in bulk or in season whenever possible and remember that convenience foods — precut vegetables or instant oatmeal — cost more than preparing them yourself.
Dried beans and lentils, for example, are typically inexpensive, but versatile and high in protein.
Peppones also encourages seniors to look into their eligibility for food-assistance programs.
“For basic food stamps, only 30 percent of older adults who are eligible receive those benefits. You’re entitled to that help. Maybe it’s only $16 a month, but that still means you’ll be able to buy something you normally couldn’t.”
Senior Services of Snohomish County can provide information about nutrition, food programs such as Meals on Wheels, Senior Dining, Senior Farmer’s Market and more: go to www.sssc.org or call 425-355-1112.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: EatRight.org.
U.S. Department of Agriculture: ChooseMyPlate.gov.