Our nutritional requirements change as we age. Here are ten ways seniors can ensure they maintain a healthy diet. By Kirsten Braun
1. Keep hydrated
As we age our awareness of thirst is actually reduced. As a result older women may reduce their intake of fluids, particularly water as they just don't feel very thirsty. In addition, our body's ability to regulate its fluid balance is also lessened when we get older. Women sometimes also limit their intake of fluid as a way of managing urinary incontinence issues. All of these factors put older women at risk of dehydration. Not drinking enough fluids can also result in urinary tract infections, constipation and even falls. One of the best ways to ensure adequate fluid intake is to have an allocated daily amount of water (6-8 glasses) in a large jug in the fridge. Pouring a drink from this regularly through the day will allow women to track how much they are drinking. Women can also watch their caffeine intake as it has a diuretic effect.
2.Watch your kilojoules
As women age their metabolism slows and they lose muscle mass. They will, therefore, require less energy to carry out the same activities than previously. This means that if women continue to eat the same amount and type of food as before they will begin to gain weight as they are burning fewer kilojoules. The best way to combat these age related changes is to choose foods that are high in nutrients but low in saturated fat, salt and sugar. Women can choose wholegrain cereals/breads, vegetables, legumes/beans, fruits, reduced fat milk, yoghurt and cheese, lean meat, chicken and fish, eggs, nuts and seeds. They can also limit refined cereals/breads, sweetened drinks, fried foods, many take-away foods, processed meats, cakes and biscuits, pastries, chocolate, lollies and crisps.
3. Watch your salt
One of the most noticeable changes in our eating habits as we age is changes to our taste. Our ability to taste salty flavours diminishes quite considerably over time. This can lead to women adding extra salt to their cooking and/or at the table. As too much salt in our diets is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease it is important to try and limit our salt intake. Instead of adding extra salt to improve flavour women can try using garlic, herbs and spices instead. Women also need to be aware that many processed foods contain hidden salt, in particular cured meats, some breakfast cereals, sauces, canned vegetables, packet or tinned soups and gravy.
4. Watch your sweet tooth
Our ability to detect sugar also decreases over time which can lead to over indulging in sweet foods and/or over-sweetening cooking. The problem with many sweet foods (ie, chocolate, desserts, pastries) is they are often high in saturated fats. There are also a lot of added sugars in processed foods that we may not be aware of. Pasta sauces, tomato sauces, mayonnaise, tinned soups, breakfast cereals and frozen meals can all be high in sugar. Women can try using spices such as nutmeg or cinnamon to add flavour to foods rather than extra sugar.
5. Get enough fibre
Our digestive system also undergoes changes as we get older, gradually slowing down. When food moves more slowly through the digestive tract more water is absorbed which can lead to constipation. Older people are also more susceptible to diverticulosis, a condition in which small pouches form in the lining of the large intestine or colon. If these pouches become inflamed or infected it is referred to as diverticulitis. A diet high in fibre reduces the risk of constipation and diverticulosis. There are two types of fibre and both are important for our health. Soluble fibre is found in oatmeal, oat bran and psyllium while sources of insoluble fibre include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds.
6. Calcium rich foods
At menopause, women experience a loss of bone density due to the drop in oestrogen. This loss of bone density places them at risk of osteoporosis and fractures. As a way of countering this bone loss, women can participate in weight bearing exercise and eat calcium rich foods. It is recommended that women over 50 have 1300 mg of calcium daily. Foods high in calcium include dairy products (milk, yoghurt and cheese), calcium fortified soy milk, fish with soft, edible bones (canned salmon, sardines), dried figs, almonds, green leafy vegetables (kale, broccoli) and tofu. A glass of milk, a 200g tub of yoghurt or 200ml of calcium fortified soy milk all provide approximately 300mg calcium. There are also calcium fortified milks available which provide higher amounts of calcium than regular milk. It is important to note that the low or no fat varieties of dairy products still provide the same level of calcium so people can choose these healthier options without compromising on their calcium intake.
7. Vitamin D
In addition to calcium, Vitamin D also plays an important role in maintaining strong bones. Sun exposure is the main way our body obtains Vitamin D. However, ageing decreases the skin's ability to produce Vitamin D so that older women need to have more sun exposure to be able to make enough Vitamin D. Women who do not have a lot of sun exposure (those who spend the majority of time indoors or whose clothing keeps them well covered) are, therefore, at risk of Vitamin D deficiency, particularly in the winter months. While Vitamin D can be found in certain foods (fatty fish, egg yolk, liver and fortified milk) it can be difficult to obtain enough from diet alone. Therefore, women who don't have enough sun exposure may benefit from taking a Vitamin D supplement.
8. Limit alcohol
In the most recent Australian Health Survey, women in the 55-64 year age group had higher rates of drinking at risky levels than women in the 18-24 year age group. These alcohol consumption trends are a concern as the body's ability to absorb and metabolise alcohol decreases with age. Older women, therefore, will actually experience a higher blood alcohol concentration than a younger woman, after consuming the same amount of alcohol. Alcohol use is also linked to a higher risk of breast and possibly bowel and liver cancers in women. The current Australian national guidelines for alcohol consumption recommend that women drink no more than two standard drinks on any day and drink no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion. The guidelines also recognise that older people should take special care with alcohol as it can increase their risk of falls and interact with medications.
9. Include good fats and oils
Previously there was a focus of limiting the intake of all fats and oils in the diet. We now know, however, that fats and oils are not all the same. While saturated fats and trans fats (ie., hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated vegetable fats) should be avoided, we can include some good fats and oils in our diet. These include polyunsaturated and monosaturated oils (canola, sunflower, olive, sesame and peanut oil), as well as those found in avocado, unsalted nuts (almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews) and seeds (linseeds, pumpkin and sunflower). In addition, omega-3 oils found in oily fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines are also good for us. Omega-3 oils reduce the risk of heart disease and are also thought to prevent depression, Alzheimer's and eye diseases.
10. Find company
In our society eating is often a shared activity. If women are widowed or divorced they may find they lose interest in preparing food as they do not enjoy eating alone. Cooking a meal may seem like a lot of effort to go to for just one person. If women find themselves in this predicament they can try making lunch or dinner dates with family or friends. Joining a local club can also provide an opportunity to enjoy a reasonably priced meal in the company of others. Visiting a farmer's market to buy fresh produce can re-energise an interest in cooking and provide a chance to chat to stallholders and other market goers. If women find shopping for food and cooking has become too difficult to manage they may be eligible for a service such as Meals on Wheels.
What to eat
The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide recommended daily serves of the five food groups for children and adults. Below are the recommendations for women aged 51 and over.
Last updated: December 2013
©Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by Women's Health Queensland Wide's editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2013 Issue 4.