Food is one of life’s great pleasures, but as we get older the types and the quantity of food we have consumed in the past may need to change.
Our metabolism slows down with advancing years so we do not burn off calories quite as quickly.
Perhaps we are not as active as we once were so portions may need to be altered and the balance of our diet may need to be adjusted.
The ability to absorb some nutrients can also be compromised. Maybe your appetite has waned owing to stress, depression or bereavement.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that for the first time in history there are 11 million people aged 65 or over in the UK.
Nearly one in five people currently in the UK will live to see their 100th birthday.
Diet can be one way of helping us to live long and to live well. If you are in otherwise good health, these handy tips could help you stay healthy and energetic for longer.
Enjoy your food
The key is to balance the pleasure of food with healthy eating, depriving yourself of what you enjoy indefinitely will just make you miserable so the motto is: a little of what you fancy does you good.
Notice that phrase: “a little”. Keeping your diet as varied as possible will help you take in the required vitamins and minerals.
According to NHS guidelines for most of us the aim is to cut down on saturated fat, reduce our intake of salt, sugar and alcohol.
Equally we should be increasing our intake of fibre and fruit and vegetables.
A balance of fruit and vegetables, good quality protein, complex carbohydrates and a little fat should do the trick.
“Some people follow every food warning or media story and end up eating only a very restricted range of foods,” says registered dietitian, Vicki Pout, on behalf of the British Dietetic Association’s specialist group for older people, but moderation is the key
Fruit and vegetables
Making these a big part of your diet will really boost your diet and your immune system. Topping up on your vitamin C could help your natural defences against colds and ‘flu.
Oranges, however, are not the only vitamin C rich fruit.
Indeed kiwis, strawberries, peppers, dark leafy greens and broccoli will all provide you a vitamin C.
Vitamin and Mineral absorption
With age, the level of our stomach acid falls so absorption of iron, calcium and the vitamins B6, B12 and folate are reduced. Also it is worth being aware that some medication can affect absorption of vitamins and minerals.
Absorbing and manufacturing vitamin D can also be difficult as we age.
Keeping your diet varied and eating enough can go some way to helping you get the vitamins you need but you may benefit from taking vitamin supplements
Iron can be found in liver, red meat, beans, nuts, dried fruit, most dark-green leafy vegetables (such as watercress or kale), whole grains, and fortified breakfast cereals.
Calcium can be found in dairy products, green leafy vegetables (broccoli or cabbage), soya beans, tofu, nuts, bread and fish (sardines and pilchards).
B6 can be found in pork, poultry, fish, bread, whole cereal, eggs, vegetables, beans, milk. Vitamin B12 can be found in meat, fish, eggs, cheese and some fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin D is vital for healthy teeth and bones and helps regulate the absorption of calcium and phosphorous (which can help with healthy bones, assist kidney function and maintain electrolyte and fluid balance). It can be found in oily fish (sardines, pilchards, herring, trout, tuna, salmon and mackerel), fortified foods such as margarine and some cereals and can be sourced from 20-30 minutes in the sunlight but if you cannot get out as much as you would like it may be worth considering taking a vitamin D supplement.
As we get older the chances of having digestive disorders such as constipation, diverticulosis and piles increase.
There is some evidence that our bowel peristalsis (the action of the food in the gut) can slow down more and this could lead to constipation. Lack of mobility and not drinking enough can also add to the problem.
Eating more fibre is a recommendation for all of us.
“Try wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta and brown rice,” says June Copeman, the Professional Lead for Nutrition and Dietetics within the School of Health and Wellbeing (corr) at Leeds Beckett University.
In baking, you can also make adjustments to fill up on fibre.
“If you are making cakes you could use half white flour and half wholemeal to get more fibre,” she says. “It will still be tasty but be aware that it will take a little longer to bake.”
Wholegrain substitutes and high-fibre pulses and lentils have more “bite” and will have the added advantage of filling you up.
Remember, when you eat more fibre you must increase your fluid intake to feel the benefit.
As Vicki Pout explains: “If you only increase your fibre intake without making sure you are drinking enough you won’t benefit from the fibre and constipation may get worse.”
Kidney function changes as we get older and keeping hydrated is very important.
If you are taking in more fibre then keeping hydrated will help with bulking up the fibre which will in turn help with regular bowel movements. Also if you are feeling lethargic and/or have a headache it could be that you are dehydrated (your urine is a good indicator: if is very dark it means you need to drink more. You should aim for light-coloured pee).
Be aware that fruit juice should be taken in small amounts, far better to substitute it with water. As with guidelines for all age groups sugary drinks should be limited.
“People may think fruit juice is the healthy option,” says June Copeman. “But they are full of sugar.”
Sometimes the information regarding our fat intake can be confusing. While it still holds that cutting back on saturated fats is advised, a little bit of butter, cheese and cream can add hugely to our enjoyment of food.
You could perhaps try some lower-fat alternatives and treat yourself to the real stuff now and then, the key is not to feel deprived.
Omega 3 fatty acids (which can be found in salmon, mackerel and sardines) are, however, encouraged as part of a balanced diet. Indeed, the government recommends eating at least two portions of fish a week. Some studies have suggested consumption of such fish can lower blood pressure and reduce fat build-up in the arteries.
In recent years coconut oil has been praised for its health benefits which are said to include lowering cholesterol, helping with skin conditions (such as dry skin) and having antibacterial properties that can help with skin infections such as fungal skin infections. Its moisturising properties are also widely used in haircare products.
Despite being high in saturated fat, half of this is medium-chain fatty acids that are metabolised differently and go straight to the liver to provide a quick source of energy.
These fatty acids are also thought to help improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, control blood sugar levels, help with weight loss and improve the immune system.
Cooking with coconut oil may leave a slight coconut taste so it is may take a little experimentation to suit your palate.
As with all fats, however, they should be used as part of a balanced diet.
Be aware of how much you may be drinking. “It can become a habit,” says June Copeman. “At home people are not always that strict on the measures so they could be drinking more than they realise. Alcohol is very calorific and can lead to weight gain so it is very wise to keep an eye on this.”
Lost appetite and social isolation
According to Vicki Pout social isolation can lead people to neglect their diet. “Social isolation can affect older people,” she says. “If you are bereaved or live alone you may not feel like cooking for one. To a certain extent our appetite does lessen as we get older but not in all cases.”
Indeed your eating habits could be more revealing than you think.
“If you are underweight or overweight then it may be worth talking to your GP and ask whether you might benefit from being referred to a dietitian,” she adds.
“Malnutrition and obesity in older people is a big issue. They are opposite ends of the scale and both are unhealthy.”
If you are you feeling low, recently bereaved or feeling the effects of loneliness, which is in turn affecting your appetite, it is worth consulting your GP who may be able to offer some advice.
In the meantime, keeping regular meal times and not skipping meals is important.
Perhaps eating regular smaller snacks/meals may be a way to get through the day.
Some snack ideas could include: nuts (if you are not on a low-fat diet) and fruit may give you a bit of energy. Also stockpile healthy tinned foods that are easy to cook such as soup (read the label for fat and salt and sugar content), tins of fish such as sardines, mackerel or tuna and salmon.
Always try and have a good breakfast (porridge is an excellent and cheap start to the day and you could perhaps chop a banana into it or add berries to it).
If you are on your own and you find it hard to muster up the effort to cook for yourself approach ready meals with caution and learn to read the food labels. Many ready meals are high in fat and salt.
If your appetite has decreased because your sense of smell or taste has been impaired avoid loading your food with salt and sugar and try to use herbs and spices instead.
“Our metabolism will slow down in old age,” explains Dr Mario Siervo an academic at Newcastle University with an expertise in nutrition and ageing.
“If we eat the same amount as we did when we were younger we will start to put on weight so we have to alter our diet as we age. Keeping active and maintaining physical activity is also very important.”
Exercise such as brisk walking can burn calories and lift our mood but if mobility is an issue there are other ways to keep active.
“Even if you are stuck in a chair a bit of upper body movement is a very good idea,” says June Copeman.
Physical activity can alleviate stress and stress can cause digestive disorders.
Keeping active can also help with bowel movements.
Getting out and about will also mean you will be getting sunshine which will help in the creation of vitamin D.
Maintaining a healthy, varied diet with enough water and activity should help you feel your best. Don’t be put off by faddy diets and scare stories. Moderation and a little of what you fancy now and then should be your mantra.
Remember, food should not be feared but celebrated as one of life’s great pleasures.
For more information go to:
British Dietetic Association www.bda.uk.com