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Healthy Nutrition for Older Adults, Part II:

5 Most Important Elements of a Senior Diet

In Part I of this series, we talked about the difficulties many older adults have in maintaining a healthy diet. Physical and lifestyle changes often lead to poor eating habits and even malnutrition. We also discussed how seniors’ caloric needs are less, so each calorie needs to have maximum nutritional value.

So let’s take a look at the five most important elements of any senior’s diet. By ensuring that you or a loved one have the following as a regular part of a healthy diet, you will go a long way toward reducing health risks:

  1. Fiber – We tend to think of dietary fiber as keeping us “regular,” but fiber has many more benefits. It can lower one’s risk for everything from strokes to diabetes and generally boost the immune system. Fiber promotes healthy digestion, which is important for older, less efficient systems. To get sufficient fiber in one’s diet, food choices should include lots of whole grains, fruits, nuts, leafy vegetables, and beans.

  2. Vitamins – The two most important vitamins that are often insufficient in older adults’ diets are Vitamins B and D. B12 is a critical component in replenishing red blood cells and helping maintain healthy nerve function. But older adults don’t absorb it from their diets as easily as young people, so it’s important to eat foods rich in B12, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and milk products. Folic acid or folate is another B vitamin often lacking in seniors’ diets, and a deficiency can lead to anemia. Fruits, vegetables, and fortified cereals can increase one’s folic acid intake. Vitamin D is essential for helping seniors absorb calcium and maintain muscles, and it reduces the risk of osteoporosis and some chronic diseases. Fatty fish, fortified milks, and egg yolks contain Vitamin D and can help older adults maintain adequate levels of this important vitamin. It’s a good idea to check with a personal physician to see if an vitamin supplements are needed to supplement what is available from a healthy diet.

  3. Minerals – Potassium, calcium, and magnesium are three vital minerals in which many older adults are deficient. Potassium maintains cell function and strengthens bones, and it has also been shown to reduce high blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables are the best dietary sources, including bananas, plums, prunes, and potatoes in the skin. A healthy selection of fruits and vegetables at each meal will provide the vast majority of individuals with sufficient daily potassium. Calcium is an important mineral primarily associated with bone health, which is critical in older adults, whose bones are more brittle. Three daily servings of milk or other dairy products, along with calcium rich vegetables such as broccoli or kale, will help most adults achieve the recommended daily allowance of calcium. Senior nutritionists also recommend daily yogurt and fruit smoothies as a delicious and simple way for older adults to take in more calcium. Magnesium is a third mineral in which older adults are often deficient. Less than 30% of all adults meet the recommended daily requirements for magnesium in their diets. Aging, disease, and some medications all contribute to magnesium deficiencies in many seniors. Magnesium is associated with a healthy immune system, stronger bones, and heart health. Individuals should rely more on unprocessed foods to obtain adequate magnesium, including fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains.

  4. “Good” fats – Unsaturated fats – particularly omega-3 fats – provide many health benefits and are associated with heart health, reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and reduced or slowed symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and macular degeneration. Omega-3 fats are primarily found in fish, and nutritionists recommend that older adults should have at least two servings of seafood per week. Tuna, salmon, and mackerel are particularly high in omega-3 fats. Vegetable sources of these fats include flaxseed, canola oil, and walnuts.

  5. Water – Perhaps nothing is more crucial for seniors’ health than sufficient water consumption. Water is a key element in digestion. Keeping adequately hydrated is more difficult for older adults, for several reasons. One’s sense of thirst tends to decline with age, and many medications increase the risk for dehydration. It is also harder for aging bodies to properly regulate fluid levels. Dehydration can lead to such symptoms as confusions, urinary tract infections, or constipation. It is recommended that older adults drink 3 – 5 large glasses of water per day.

The best way to ensure recommended levels of each of the above nutritional elements is to eat a healthy, balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, good fats, and proteins. In the final part of our series, we’ll look at some general principles of good nutrition for seniors and how to better plan a healthy diet with an older loved one.

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