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Nutrition & Aging

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"I have trouble chewing."
"Food just doesn’t taste the same anymore."
"I don’t have a car to go shopping."
"It’s hard to cook for one person."
"I’m just not that hungry anymore."

Is one of these a reason you are not eating well now? Food provides energy and nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy. Nutrients include proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. As you grow older, you may need less energy from what you eat. But, you still need just as many of the nutrients in food. Nutrition experts can recommend what the average older person needs to eat, but you should also check with your doctor or a registered dietitian, a specialist trained in nutrition. This is especially true if you have a health problem that limits what you should eat. They can help you plan meals that will include the healthy foods you need without the foods you should avoid.

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What Should I Eat?

Choose many different healthy foods. Pick those that are lower in fat, especially saturated fat (mostly in foods that come from animals), and cholesterol. Eat or drink only small amounts of sugary or salty foods, and alcoholic drinks, if you drink them at all. Avoid "empty calories" as much as you can. These are foods like sodas, potato chips, and cookies that have a lot of calories, but not many nutrients.

Calories are a way to measure the energy you get from food. If you eat more calories than your body needs, you could gain weight. If you are not active, choose lower calorie foods and eat the smallest number of servings suggested for each of the five food groups (See below). If you are active, you should eat more servings for more calories. The calorie counts for most packaged foods are listed in the Nutrition Facts part of the label or package.

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How Much Should I Eat?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed the Food Guide Pyramid to help you make healthy food choices. There are five major food groups. Every day you should try to eat the suggested number of servings from each group. If you can’t do that, at least try to eat something from each group each day. Lower fat choices are best.
Make sure you eat vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain foods. The food groups are:

Grains—6-11 servings; one serving is:

  • One roll, slice of bread, or small muffin,
  • 1/2 bagel or English muffin,
  • 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta,
  • 1/2 cup of cooked cereal, or
  • about 1 cup (1 oz.) of ready-to-eat cereal.

Vegetables—3-5 servings; one serving is:

  • 1/2 cup of chopped raw or cooked vegetables, or
  • 1 cup of leafy raw vegetables.

Fruits—2-4 servings; one serving is:

  • 1 medium piece of fruit or melon wedge,
  • 3/4 cup of juice,
  • 1/2 cup of canned fruit, or
  • 1/4 cup of dried fruit.

Milk, yogurt, and cheese—2-3 servings (3 for people over 50); one serving is:

  • 1 cup of milk or yogurt, or
  • 1-1/2 to 2 ounces of cheese.

One cup of soup made with milk, 1/2 cup of pudding from "scratch" or a mix, or 1 cup of cottage cheese counts as half a serving.

Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts—2-3 servings (to equal 5 to 7 ounces of lean meat, poultry, or fish); one serving is:

  • 2 to 3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish,
  • 1/2 cup of tuna fish, or
  • 1/2 cup of cooked beans or tofu, 1 egg, 1/3 cup of nuts, or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter—each of which can count as one ounce of meat.

Some other tips:

  • Each day eat only small amounts of fats, oils, and sweets.

  • Remember, when counting servings, that there may be more than one "Food Pyramid serving" of a food on your plate. For example, a sandwich made with two slices of bread is two servings of grain products.

  • Sometimes manufacturers put more than one serving in a package or bottle.

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Are You Less Interested in Food?

Does your favorite chicken dish taste different? Does Aunt Molly’s pea soup suddenly seem to need salt? The flavor of the food is probably the same as always. With age your sense of taste and sense of smell may change. This affects how foods taste. They may
seem to have lost flavor. You may not be able to smell if foods have gone bad. You might want to date foods in your refrigerator to keep yourself from eating foods that are no longer fresh. If in doubt, throw it out.

There are other reasons food may not taste the same. Some medicines can change your sense of taste or make you feel less hungry. Maybe you have slowed down a bit, so your body needs fewer calories. Maybe chewing is difficult because your dentures need to be adjusted or your teeth or gums need to be checked. You might want to pick softer foods to eat.

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Do I Need to Drink Water?

Not just water. You need to drink plenty of liquids like water, juice, milk, and soup. Aim for eight 8-ounce glasses a day. You have to replace the fluids you lose every day. But, check with your doctor if he or she has told you to limit how much you drink.

Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to start drinking. With age you may lose some of your sense of thirst. In addition, medicine can sometimes cause you to lose fluids. If you are drinking enough, your urine will be pale yellow. If it is a bright or dark yellow, you need to drink more liquids. If the color still does not change, talk to your health care provider.

Do you have a urinary control problem? If your answer is yes, don’t stop drinking a lot of liquid. But, talk to your doctor for help with your urinary control problem.

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What About Fiber?

Dietary fiber is found in foods that come from plants— fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, brown rice, and whole grains, such as oat, barley, wheat, corn, and rice bran. It is the part of plant foods that your body cannot digest. Eating more fiber may prevent intestinal problems like constipation, diverticulosis, and diverticulitis. It may also lower cholesterol and blood sugar and help you have regular bowel movements.

Some nutrition experts think adults should eat 20 to 35 grams of fiber each day. If you are not used to eating a lot of fiber, add extra sources of fiber to your diet slowly to avoid stomach problems. The best source of this fiber is food, rather than dietary supplements. When adding fiber, remember:

  • Eat cooked dry beans, peas, and lentils often.

  • Leave skins on your fruit and vegetables when possible.

  • Choose whole fruit over fruit juice.

  • Eat whole-grain breads and cereals.

  • Drink lots of fluids to keep the fiber moving through your intestines.

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Should I Cut Back on Salt?

Salt (sodium chloride) is the most common way people get sodium. Sodium is naturally present in most foods, and salt is added to many canned and prepared foods. The body uses sodium to keep the blood, muscles, and nerves healthy, but too much is not good. Most people eat a lot more sodium than they need.

Each day you should eat no more than 2400 mg of sodium. This is about one teaspoon of table salt. It includes all the sodium you get in your food and drink, not just what you add when cooking or eating. If your doctor tells you to use less salt, try to cut back on salty foods like processed meats and mustard. Use spices, herbs, and lemon juice to add flavor to your food.

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What About Fat?

Fat in your diet provides energy and certain vitamins. Too much fat, especially saturated fat, can be bad for your heart and blood vessels and can lead to heart disease. Saturated fats often come from animal sources. They tend to be solid at room temperature, rather than liquid. Also, fat is high in calories. It should make up no more than 30 percent of your total calories—53 grams of fat if you are trying to eat 1600 calories a day. Some examples of fat content are:

  • a 3-ounce broiled, extra-lean hamburger patty has about 14 grams,

  • a hard-boiled egg has 5 grams, and

  • a teaspoon of butter or margarine has 4 grams.

To lower the fat in your diet:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat, fish, or poultry (with the skin removed).

  • Trim off any extra fat before cooking.

  • Use low-fat dairy products and salad dressings.

  • Use non-stick pots and pans, and cook without added fat.

  • If you do use fat, use either an unsaturated vegetable oil or a nonfat cooking spray.

  • Broil, roast, bake, stir-fry, steam, microwave, or boil foods. Avoid frying them.

  • Season your foods with lemon juice, herbs, or spices, instead of butter.

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How Can I Make Shopping Easier?

Plan your meals in advance. Check your supply of staples like flour, sugar, rice, and cereal. Make a list of what you need. Keep some canned or frozen fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, dinners, and soups on hand. These are handy when you do not feel like cooking or cannot
go out. Powdered nonfat dry milk, canned evaporated milk, and ultra-pasteurized milk in a carton can be stored easily.

Think about how much of a product you will use. A large size may be cheaper per unit, but it is not a bargain if you end up throwing much of it away. Share large packages with a friend. Frozen vegetables sold in bags save money because you can use small amounts while keeping the rest frozen. If  a package of meat or fresh produce is too large, ask a store employee to repackage it in a smaller size.

Learn to read food package labels. There you will find a list of ingredients. The first one listed is present in the food in the largest amount. The ones that follow are present in smaller and smaller amounts. Look at "Nutrition Facts" for the calories, protein, carbohydrate, fat, sodium, fiber, vitamin, and mineral amounts per serving. It also suggests a serving size for
comparing foods. There may be an expiration or "use by" date on the label or container. At first, reading labels will add some time to your shopping trip. Soon you will learn which products are best for you.

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Won’t All This Food Cost A Lot?

Here are some ways to keep your food costs down:

  • Plain (generic) labels, if available, or store brands are usually cheaper than name brands.

  • Plan your menu around items on sale.

  • Prepare more of the foods you enjoy, and quickly refrigerate the leftovers to eat in a day or two.

  • Or, divide leftovers into individual servings. Write the contents and date on each package, and freeze to use within a few months.

  • Share meal preparation and costs with a friend.

  • Plan a "pot-luck" dinner where everyone brings a prepared dish.

The federal government provides food stamps to help people with low incomes buy groceries. If you think you are eligible, check with a local food stamps office or area agency
on aging. Also check with your local area agency on aging or tribal organization for the nearest senior center or nutrition site. You may be able to enjoy free or low-cost meals for older people at a community center, church, or school. These meals offer good food and a chance to be with other people. Home delivered meals are available for people who are homebound.

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USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC)

Administration on Aging

NIA Information Center

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Anti-aging Supplements