A healthy diet is important at any stage of life, but can be particularly vital for aging adults. Learning about the dietary needs of aging adults can help you ensure that you get the nutrients you need to support good physical, cognitive, and emotional health. Maximizing digestibility of those nutrients through proper cooking techniques is also critical to receive optimal benefits.
Seniors dietary needs
When Janet was young, food was her life. She worked as a chef in one of San Francisco’s largest hotels and spent her weekends making elaborate meals for her family. While she loved cooking and knew so much about food, things started to change when she entered her late sixties.
Janet noticed that as she aged, her appetite started to diminish along with her sense of taste and smell. No longer as interested in food as she used to be and lacking the energy she once had to cook, her diet really started to suffer. Most days she wouldn’t eat breakfast and for lunch, she’d only have a little canned soup. Dinner usually consisted of some cheese, crackers, and carrot sticks, but she was often too tired in the evenings to eat.
As a result of her poor diet and reduced caloric intake, Janet began experiencing some health problems and her energy plummeted. Thankfully, her daughter recognized what was going on and took her to see a senior nutritionist who helped Janet understand seniors dietary needs and the importance of maintaining a balanced diet as she aged. Together, Janet and the nutritionist talked about important foods and food preparation tips that would help Janet get her health back on track and promote healthy aging.
If you are concerned about your diet but don’t know which foods to try and incorporate into their diet, let’s look at the best foods for aging adults and tips on how to cook them for optimal nutrition.
The Best Foods For Aging
Following a balanced diet is important for everyone, but it’s particularly critical as we age to eat well in order to maintain good health. Not only can a balanced diet with sufficient calories and a full spectrum of nutrients aid in preventing health problems and disease by strengthening the body and providing it with the building blocks it needs, it can also help normalize weight, aiding in healthy weight loss and even healthy weight gain.
As part of a balanced diet, there are certain foods (superfoods?) that should be incorporated into our regular diet. These foods are wonderful at promoting cognitive, circulatory, bowel, immune, and musculoskeletal health:
- Foods that promote cognitive function: Diet can play a huge role in helping the aging brain regenerate, form new neural connections, and preserve memory. In fact, certain foods, deemed brain foods, are particularly good at this because of their antioxidant power and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Dark leafy greens like kale and chard, blueberries, eggs, and wild fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) are key foods for cognitive health.
- Foods that promote heart health: We all know how important a strong, healthy heart and circulatory system are to aging. Foods high in soluble fiber, like oats, Brussels sprouts, and beans can have cholesterol-lowering effects.
- Foods that promote bowel health: As we age our digestive system tends to slow down, making older adults more prone to constipation. High-fiber foods like flax seeds, prunes, whole grains, and leafy greens are great for promoting regularity and better bowel health. Just be sure to drink lots of water, too.
- Foods that promote immune health: Having a healthy immune system is necessary in order to prevent illness—from the common cold to more serious diseases. Because the immune system tends to weaken in older adults, give it a boost with foods high in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, bell peppers, and broccoli. Healthy, probiotic bacteria is also important for the immune system, so enjoy a daily dose of fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut.
- Foods that promote musculoskeletal health: As we age our bones can become more brittle and prone to fracture and breakage so it is important to make sure we get enough calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D in our diet. High-quality dairy products, cooked kale and almonds are great sources of these nutrients. Likewise, adequate protein is needed in order to preserve muscle mass and maintain strength and mobility. Lean protein sources from meat, fish, beans, legumes, and eggs should be included in the diet regularly.
It’s important to note that the foods in these categories don’t have an isolated effect on one body system. Rather, they work holistically to promote better health to the body overall while providing certain nutrients that are favored by some parts of the body. Ultimately, the above foods are good ones to eat on a regular basis, but keep in mind that variety is also important. Choosing different types of fruits and veggies, healthy proteins, whole grains, and good sources of fat will ensure a diverse nutrient profile that will work to promote good health in the entire body.
Inspiring Meal Ideas for Seniors
Of course, accessing the nutrients in food depends a lot on how well we digest. It’s important to consider that as we age it becomes harder for our bodies to break down food and assimilate nutrients. Not only does our metabolism slow, but our stomachs become less acidic and we possess fewer enzymes to digest down our food. Therefore, ensuring that foods are as easily digestible as possible is key when it comes to meal preparation.
Tips for cooking for older adults that will maximize digestibility and nutrition
- Cook foods over raw: Cooked foods are not only easier for our bodies to break down and assimilate nutrients from, they are also much softer, making them easy to eat for aging adults with dental problems. Opt for steaming, roasting, and sauteing fruits and veggies. If you are going to use raw fruits or veggies, try blending them into a smoothie to make them more digestible.
- Steam, saute and bake: Boiling vegetables is a common culinary practice, but many of the valuable vitamins and minerals in a food leach out into the water during this process, making it less nutritious than it could be. Try steaming, sauteing, and baking instead to preserve nutrient integrity.
- Soak beans and grains: Beans and grains have a coating called phytic acid that makes the nutrients within them hard for our bodies to access. Soaking beans and grains overnight before cooking will remove this coating and make them much easier to digest while maximizing their health benefits.
- Marinate meats and fish: Protein can be particularly hard to break down properly, but because it is such an important part of an aging adult’s diet, it is important to make it as easy as possible. Marinating meats and fish in something acidic (lemon juice, vinegar) along with herbs and spices for flavor, can help break down the proteins into a more digestible form. Simmering meats in soups and stews is also a great way to break it down—plus, it will be easier to chew.
There are plenty of great services available for Santa Cruz County seniors that help ensure they have access to healthy, thoughtfully prepared food if shopping or cooking is a struggle for them. Grey Bears offers delivery of a weekly bag of groceries to supplement the cost of, and need for fresh produce and healthy staples.
Within a few months, Janet started to feel healthier and more energized. She even started cooking again. Her experience using food as a tool to help her reclaim her well-being was a reminder of something she’d taken for granted when she was younger—that proper nutrition is incredibly powerful.
Source: Institute on Aging, January 3, 2018