As we get older, eating well becomes even more important than it has been throughout our adult lives. From the age of 50, our energy requirements decline as our metabolism and physical activity slows. This is often accompanied by a decline in appetite. However, our need for a regular intake of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals is as great as ever – to help us fight age-related disease and maintain healthy bodies.
For older adults, being slightly overweight is not a health problem and is actually better than being underweight. Underweight may be associated with malnutrition and is linked to falls and osteoporosis. Underweight people may also have fewer resources to fight disease. On the other hand, obesity is still linked to heart disease and some cancers, so keeping weight at a healthy level is very important.
The key to good health in older age is to eat plenty of nutrient dense foods. When the appetite slows, it is even more vital for the foods that we do eat to contain the vitamins and minerals we need. A good diet boosts the immune system so we can fight infectious diseases, so the 5 a day rule is as important as ever. Including a piece of fruit at breakfast with porridge, a small bowl of muesli or yoghurt with a handful of nuts is an easy way to tick off one portion as well as adding plenty of B vitamins and fibre. Another piece of fruit after lunch or as a snack is then easy to do. Having a portion or two of veggies with lunch and a couple with dinner ensures you’re meeting the target. And try to vary the type of fruit and vegetable as each type and colour contains slightly different nutrients. Also remember that frozen is usually as good as fresh.
Other super-nutritious foods that should be eaten regularly are eggs, beans (baked beans, chickpeas, white beans, kidney beans, lentils), nuts, broccoli, green leafy veggies such as spinach, avocado, fish and lean red meat like steak (for recipes that include beans, click here). White bread should be avoided where possible – it contains lower levels of B vitamins and fibre, which are important for energy, circulation and digestion and it also causes a spike followed by a slump in energy levels.
Fish and oily fish in particular, deserve a special mention as a food that should be eaten by all older people a couple of times per week. Oily fish contains high levels of omega 3 fats, which have been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory effect. This means consumption of omega 3 may be beneficial for arthritis, macular degeneration, depression, memory and cognition, prevention of dementia as well as raised cholesterol levels. The best fish to eat is wild salmon, sardines and mackerel with lower levels of omega 3 fats also found in walnuts and flax seeds / flaxseed oil. If you really can’t tolerate fish, then a fish or krill oil supplement is worth considering.
Drinking enough fluids each day is also vital to good health. Many older people seem to feel less thirsty and as a result, don’t drink as much as they should to maintain hydration. Mild dehydration can rapidly become severe dehydration with a fever or even in hot weather and is linked to urinary tract infections and pneumonia. You should aim to drink at least six glasses of fluid per day. This doesn’t need to be all water. Fruit juice (just one per day or a couple watered down) and tea count towards the total.
Finally, exercise helps to maintain muscle mass and bones, which in turn can prevent falls and osteoporosis. It boosts the immune system and mood, prevents weight gain and is great for the cardiovascular system. Exercising outdoors also increases your chances of getting vitamin D from the sunshine and makes you feel great!