Nutrition in the Golden Years

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Nutrition in the Golden Years

Have you or a family member recently entered the “Golden Years?” Have you wondered what changes we should or shouldn’t be making in our diets, as we get older? Emily provides some nutrition tips and reminders specific to this population, as there’s quite a lot to consider…

GRANDMA’S HOUSE
When I was little, I loved having sleepovers at my grandmother’s house.

In the mornings, she made me toast with butter and honey cut into bite-sized squares. She usually ate a soft-boiled egg, though she used the French term “oeuf a la coque.” We ate at the kitchen counter and talked about her life growing up in Belgium. Turns out she had quite a wild side!

As we both got older, she asked for my help more frequently, and I slowly transitioned into a parental role. I worried about what she ate (or didn’t eat) when I wasn’t around, and if she was taking her vitamins and medications as prescribed.

Eventually I became a dietitian, which fortunately gave me valuable experience with those who had similar nutrition needs to my grandmother. Together we worked towards a food and nutrition regimen we both agreed upon, but it wasn’t easy.

So, in Grandma Georgie’s honor, here are some tips (nutritionally-focused of course) for those in their golden years, or for family looking for guidance with loved ones.

ADEQUACY IS KEY
A decrease in appetite often occurs as we get older. This is due to changes in activity and other natural processes. Some decline in intake often follows suit and that’s to be expected.

However, keep an eye out for a more drastic drop in appetite. There are serious risks to not eating and drinking enough, such as hypoglycemic events (or what can happen if blood sugar dips too low), decreased muscle strength, imbalance, and/or dehydration. All of these things are closely tied to an increased risk of falling.

So since maintaining adequate calorie intake is vital to stay safe, it’s OK for some foods to provide calories without a specific nutritional purpose. My grandmother’s all-time favorite meal was chicken soup and potato chips. It was a comfort for her, and an easy way to get in the calories she needed.

Others may notice changes in body composition such as an increase in fat stores, especially in places they have not previously noticed. This is also normal and related to natural processes from hormonal changes. It is not a clear signal to start dieting or depriving our bodies of the nourishment we need.

OPTIMIZE BONE HEALTH WITH CALCIUM & VITAMIN D
As we age, our bones break down faster than they are formed. Though we cannot reverse this process, we can optimize bone health by including calcium-rich foods in our diet.

Calcium
Dairy products (milk, yogurt, and cheese, for example) are the most abundant in calcium, readily accessible, and easy to incorporate into a variety of meals. But, for those with smaller appetites or specific dietary constraints, it can be challenging to get enough calcium from dairy.

Looking for non-dairy sources of calcium? Try small fish (like sardines) or canned salmon, leafy greens, seeds, beans/lentils (like in Ann’s Nepali Lentils), nuts, and calcium-fortified foods.

Discuss calcium supplementation with a physician if low calcium intake is an ongoing concern. The amount and type of calcium recommended will vary based on an individual’s unique dietary needs.

Vitamin D
Get your levels checked. This is important because Vitamin D is required for calcium absorption as well as for supporting immune function.

Some Vitamin D can be absorbed through foods, like fatty fish (as in the Potato Chive Salmon Cakes), fortified cereals/dairy products, or even mushrooms. However, most of our Vitamin D is made in the body following sunlight exposure.

So, maintaining sufficiency can be challenging, and is dependent on where we live and how much time we spend outdoors. If levels are insufficient, a physician will recommend a specific type and amount of Vitamin D supplement based on how low the levels are.

EASY ACCESS
Shopping, prepping, and cooking may become overwhelming as we get older. 

For those who like to cook, Ann’s Quick & Easy section on her Recipe Index is a good place to search. Recipes not requiring use of a stove or oven, such as these Easy Fruit & Yogurt Popsicles, may be a good area to focus on as well. (These are also fun to make with the grandkids!)

Sometimes grocery deliveries through services like Fresh Direct or local markets can be helpful. I had a standing order for my grandmother’s staple items, and she appreciated this on days or weeks she didn’t feel like going out to shop.

GET ENOUGH PROTEIN
Protein intake tends to decline over time. This, in combination with natural muscle atrophy and a decrease in activity level, can lead to fragility.

To maintain adequate protein intake, remember that animal proteins are absorbed most efficiently. Try the Greek Chicken Meatballs or the Ginger Soy Glazed Salmon which both pack a punch.

A variety of vegetarian protein sources could also help meet protein needs. Try the Vegan Chili, the Creamy Peanut Butter Dip, or the Honey Nut Quinoa Breakfast Bowl.  

And if eating isn’t so appealing some days, try adding one scoop of protein powder to a beverage of choice, like in this gorgeous Pink Pineapple Protein Smoothie or this 5-Ingredient Very Berry Smoothie (and make-ahead smoothie packs).

REGULAR MOVEMENT

Importantly, regular movement supports and strengthens bone and muscle health. Participating in a variety of different activities helps to engage more parts of the body.

This could include swimming, tennis, walking, dancing, gardening, biking, strength training, yoga (even chair yoga!), and much more. But whatever the activity, it should be enjoyable.

ALL MICRONUTRIENTS COUNT
Eating a varied diet helps maintain stores of all micronutrients. But as we age, this is not always possible.

Many choose to take a daily over-the-counter multivitamin (which typically contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals) to ensure they are getting enough. When taken as directed, these are generally considered safe.

That said, I do recommend checking with a physician to find the right regimen. Some supplements don’t mix with certain medications, and some may not be warranted at all.

Of note, Vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in this population for many reasons including a decrease in intake, gastric inflammation, higher incidence of pernicious anemia, and even long-term use of some medications. In these cases, it is typically recommended to take a B12 supplement once deficiency is confirmed.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
In the golden years, maintaining adequate dietary intake from a variety of foods is important. This, in combination with daily movement (as able) is beneficial in supporting bone and muscle health.

Consider supplementation in consultation with a physician if specific micronutrients levels are low or food intake declines. Protein powders mixed into puddings or shakes can help meet needs if high protein foods have become less appealing.

It is helpful to know which foods may have a positive impact on our health. It is also important to include foods we enjoy for other reasons, like comfort, convenience, and pleasure.

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Comments

    1. Emily

      Thanks for saying that Aunt Eunie – as did many of her generation, she had quite a life! And her whole apartment was totally white except for a red kitchen stool. Very Euro, very mod, very chic.

      Reply