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Dietitians Dish: Healthy ideas for older adults

By By Elizabeth Sommerfeld
June 5, 2012 at 1:05 a.m.

Elizabeth Sommerfeld

Working in hospitals, we see people who are malnourished, which makes it difficult for those patients to recover from illness or surgery. Many older adults do not have healthy diets and research shows that fruit and vegetable intake decreases in older age, as well as lean meat.

Many patients tell me that they cooked for years and are tired of cooking, so they turn to convenience food, which is typically high in added salt, sugar, fat and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Typically, your calorie needs will decrease as you age, but they do vary depending on activity level. Women 51 or older, who are not very active, need about 1,600 calories per day. But for those who are active, 2,000-2,200 a day, depending on just how active you are (I know of people older than 70 who run marathons). For inactive men 51 or older, calorie needs are around 2,000 per day, where as active men range from 2,400 to 2,800 calories per day.

It's never too late to try to increase your activity level. If you want to eat more, you need to move more. Activities like walking, lifting light weights, swimming or using resistance bands can help increase your metabolism. Of course, always check with your doctor to make sure you can do these activities, as you don't want to hurt yourself.

Micronutrient needs also change. These are the nutrients that don't provide you energy (calories), but do function in keeping your body healthy. Calcium and vitamin D help maintain your bones. You can meet your calcium needs from low-fat dairy, but it is difficult to meet your vitamin D through foods. Consider taking a calcium supplement with vitamin D.

Many adults older than 50 don't get enough vitamin B12, which can be found in fortified cereals and lean meats. A lack of vitamin B12 can result in tingling in the extremities, anemia and fatigue.

Most Americans, including older adults, don't consume enough fiber. Fiber helps prevent constipation, can reduce cholesterol, and maintain heart health. It is recommended that older adults consume 25 grams of fiber a day. The best sources of fiber are whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dried beans/peas.

Last, but not least, is potassium. New research is showing that potassium can help regulate blood pressure. Many fruits and vegetables are high in potassium.

Good examples are bananas, oranges, lima beans, potatoes, melons and tomatoes. Just make sure to reduce the salt intake as well to improve blood pressure.

If you have kidney disease, make sure not to increase potassium intake, as this may cause additional problems.

Eating a wide variety of foods that are rich in color increases the nutrient content. If convenience is an issue, choose frozen foods that can be steamed or microwaved, these tend to be easy to cook and involve less clean up.

Don't forget to drink enough fluids. Choose water, as this is the best fluid to help keep you hydrated.

Elizabeth Sommerfeld is a registered and licensed dietitian and has a master of science degree. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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