As the RD for a continuing care retirement community, you’ve been asked to do a presentation and set up a booth on good nutrition for older adults at an upcoming health fair. The audience will include former rehabilitation patients from middle age to older adults with a diverse range of health issues—from knee or hip replacement surgery and postcardiac events, to people with multiple chronic diseases including hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, malnutrition, and unintended weight loss.
Information about nutrition is everywhere, and, as a result, many people have misconceptions about the role that food and supplements can play in maintaining health. “Fad” diets for weight loss or good health can be difficult to follow, may not have any benefit, and can actually be harmful. But with only 45 minutes to speak to such a diverse audience, how do you decide what’s most important to discuss? Use the tips below to help you form your program.
Nutrition for Older Adults
Older adults have the same basic nutritional needs as younger adults, with a few exceptions. As we age, our energy needs decrease, which means that we need less food to maintain weight—and eating too much can result in weight gain. Consuming nutrient-dense foods is essential for good health. Following the guidelines found at ChooseMyPlate.gov can help older adults make good food choices from the five food groups outlined: vegetables, fruits, grains, protein foods, and dairy foods. ChooseMyPlate recommends specific amounts and portions of each food group for good health. It’s a template that can be used to plan healthful menus to meet the needs of most older adults, including those with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and/or hypertension.
Eating foods from all the food groups will provide the protein, calories, vitamins, minerals, fluids, and fiber that older adults need for good health. ChooseMyPlate recommends nonanimal sources of protein (such as nuts and nut butters, beans, and soyfoods) for those who don’t eat meat, and whole grains (whole wheat bread, oatmeal, popcorn, etc) as part of the grain group for all consumers. Unless a person has a specific health problem (such as a food allergy) that requires avoiding a food group, foods from all groups should be included on a daily basis.
Diet Alterations, Food Habits, and Supplementation
Some older adults may need to decrease the amount of sodium or sugar or alter the types and amounts of fats they consume. Many will need to increase intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Food habits take a lifetime to build and can be difficult to change. If a person has never been a breakfast eater, they aren’t likely to change that habit as they age. If a person was a dessert eater at every meal, this may be a habit they don’t want to give up. Food and meals play a big role in quality of life for older adults. Eating a healthful diet is important but it should be balanced with the pleasure of eating and enjoying favorite foods that some might consider unhealthful. There are really no “good foods” and no “bad foods.” Older adults are encouraged to eat healthful foods, but they also can include some foods that provide comfort and pleasure.
Because food habits can be hard to change, it’s probably not realistic for an older adult who has been overweight most of his or her life to lose weight, or for someone who has been very slender to put on weight. Some older adults who want to lose weight can be successful, but it’s important not to restrict food intake too much because it can compromise health.
Health problems, such as new medical problems or a decreased appetite, may affect an older person’s nutritional needs. Some older adults may need to take a vitamin supplement. Shortfall nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 are some of the nutrients commonly prescribed for older adults. A daily multivitamin might be a good idea if a person has a poor diet, but it’s not a magic formula that will keep someone healthy. Conversely, vitamin and/or herbal supplements can interfere with some prescription medications, so it’s important for older adults to check with a doctor before they take any of these over-the-counter products.
Key Nutrition Messages
Spend some time on ChooseMyPlate.gov to refresh yourself on the basics of good nutrition. It’s a good idea to select a few major points that will be of interest to the entire group. For example:
- Eating a healthful diet, using guidelines such as ChooseMyPlate as a template, is important to good health.
- Include vegetables, fruit, dairy foods, good sources of protein, and grains in the recommended amounts and portion sizes daily.
- There are no “good” or “bad” foods; all foods can fit into a healthful diet. Food adds pleasure to our lives and should be enjoyed.
- Every person is different so what’s good for one person may not be appropriate for another. An RD is a trusted resource for easy-to-follow, individualized nutrition advice to match clients’ lifestyle and health needs.
While preparing for your presentation, be sure to visit ChooseMyPlate.gov’s Resources for Older Adults. Other good sources of information include the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Resources for Seniors and the National Institute on Aging’s AgePage.
Your audience may have specific questions about their own health and nutritional needs that shouldn’t be addressed in a group setting. Encourage them to make a private appointment with you or refer them to the Academy’s Find an Expert page.
— Becky Dorner, RDN, LD, FAND, is widely known as one of the nation’s leading experts on nutrition and long term health care. Her company, Becky Dorner & Associates, Inc, is a trusted source of valuable resources dedicated to improving quality of life for older adults. For valuable resources for health care professionals, visit www.beckydorner.com and sign up for the free membership.