It can be hard to change our eating habits, and especially so as we age. Yet it can also mean increased health, energy and even greater longevity, in some cases.
“Senior attitudes toward food are similar to their attitudes about life,” reflects Sue DeCotiis, a medical internist and weight-loss specialist in New York City. “Sometimes they are stuck in a rut that has developed over a long period of time, which can be difficult to change, but it’s never too late. Eating healthier now can have immediate results on the body, and good diet and exercise are the keys to a longer life.”
Two main issues concerning older adults are excess weight and excess amounts of sodium in the diet, says Ruth Frechman, a registered dietician based in Burbank, Calif., and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Excess weight affects their risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and sodium excesses can be a problem particularly if they eat out a lot,” she says.
Obesity rates among seniors are on the rise, notes DeCotiis. “More effort should be put into becoming active as you age. Often seniors are not informed about their nutritional needs,” she explains.
Frechman says seniors cook less at home than they did in past generations, and eat out or eat on the run more often. As a result, they may not be getting enough fruit, vegetables and whole grains in their diets. They do, however, still require the same nutrients as younger people.
Eating habits definitely change as people age, says Dr. Steven Zinn, a geriatric physician in the family medicine department at Drexel University College of Medicine. “As they get older, some seniors eat less than younger people, and diminishing appetite can cause problems in terms of getting the right nutrition,” he cautions.
A variety of factors can cause seniors’ calorie intakes to decrease, including medication that affects appetite; dental problems; and social isolation. “When we eat in groups we’re more likely to get a sampling of all the food groups, whereas when we eat alone we might not get the fresh fruit and vegetables that are considered important,” Zinn says.
He notes patients’ weights each time he checks in with them, and if he notices weight loss, he’ll ask why. “A lot of seniors say they don’t feel like eating, or eating alone,” he recalls. “They tend to fill up easier than they used to, and many will skip breakfast and lunch and have a small dinner.”
For some patients it boils down to the fact that food just doesn’t taste as good as it used to. So says Deborah Hussey, registered dietician at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, Md. “All of us begin to progressively lose our sense of taste at the age of 50 and we may not like some foods as much as we used to, so we avoid eating them,” she says.
For seniors who have dental issues like missing teeth, poor fitting dentures or mouth sores that present chewing problems, these challenges can be exacerbated. “Add the fact that food may not be absorbed by the body like it was when we were younger, which can cause bloating and gas, and all of this affects and possibly decreases the food choices a senior makes,” she says.
Still, it’s never too late to make positive changes to your diet. “Your menu should contain lots of fruit and vegetables, some lean protein, whole grains and foods with fiber,” Hussey says. “You’ll be surprised that even small modifications can add to your life span and make you feel a lot better.”
A high-protein diet is essential, agrees DeCotiis, as it helps maintain muscle mass and a strong metabolism. “Great forms of inexpensive protein are beans and lentils, and for healthy fats, look to nuts and create easy meals like leafy salads with grilled chicken or fish,” she suggests.
Seniors would be prudent to pay attention to their intakes of carbohydrates and sodium, habits that can be hard to break. “Most seniors are pretty smart and they have fairly good insight at that time in their lives about what they should be doing,” says Zinn. “Still, it’s never easy to make change.”
He recommends a Mediterranean-type diet, which is associated with less risk of heart disease according to studies, and promotes increased longevity. “Even starting a diet like this in your senior years can have those same benefits, as well as lowering your risk of heart disease and diabetes,” he notes.
“Still, when I’m 90, I’m going to eat what I want!”
This article originally appeared in "The Good Liffe," a speccial section.