Whether we’re devouring a sleeve of rich Belgian chocolate, tucking into a fresh homemade Vietnamese salad, or sipping on an award-winning latte from our favourite coffee shop, eating brings us all immense pleasure. It’s one of life’s many joys, and we’re lucky to have access to such an array of delicious food.
But it’s not all positive. We need to eat three meals a day, which must be planned, ingredients bought, and then cooked—a time consuming process that takes a lot of mental energy and preparation. As we slip into our senior years and find our energy waning, eating healthier becomes even more difficult.
In this article, we offer advice on healthy eating for seniors—why it is important, the best and worst foods, and how to make it as easy as possible.
Why is healthy eating important for seniors?
Sadly, the older we get, the harder it is to remain healthy. Seniors are at a greater risk of becoming overweight or underweight, which weakens their muscles and bones, and makes them more vulnerable to chronic health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and osteoporosis1. Our immune systems also deteriorate as we get older, which makes it harder to fight diseases such as cancer, pneumonia, flu, and COVID-192.
With health risks increased, it’s critical to offset them with a well-balanced, nutritious diet. When seniors consistently eat healthy foods, they’re energising themselves with optimum fuel, boosting their immune system, and lowering their risk for disease.
What does healthy eating for seniors look like?
Seniors tend to be less active, with fewer calories needed to stay energised throughout the day. But one thing that doesn’t change is the amount of required nutrients, and with less food being consumed, the quality of the food we consume becomes vital.
The best foods for seniors are nutrient-rich, which will provide them with the vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats that they need to stay healthy.
Nutrient-rich foods include:
- Broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts
- Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, chard, cabbage, romaine, and bok-choy
- Squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, and pumpkin
- Snap peas, green beans, bell peppers, and asparagus
- Apples, plums, mangos, papaya, pineapple, and bananas
- Blueberries, strawberries, cherries, pomegranates, and grapes
- Citrus fruits, such as grapefruits and oranges
- Peaches, pears, and melons
- Tomatoes and avocados
- Beans and lentils
- Nuts and seeds
- Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pecans, macadamias, hazelnuts
- Flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
- Whole grains
- Oats, whole wheat, brown rice, whole-grain rye, buckwheat, barley, quinoa, spelt
- Lean protein
- Chicken, turkey
- Lean cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb
- Salmon, haddock, tuna, shrimp, mussels, scallops, lobster
It’s also important for seniors to eat enough fibre, to boost their digestive system. This includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, oats, and whole grains.
Identifying healthy foods is the easy part. Finding recipes that are healthy, easy to cook, and delicious can be difficult, and you will need to use every available resource to identify them, whether through cookbooks or websites such as Taste.com.au. If your elderly loved one has fallen into bad eating habits, take some time to create a healthy eating plan together, so that they can get the nutrients they need to stay energised and boost their immune system. This might include a weekly trip to a local cafe or restaurant, to get some much-needed social interaction.
If you’re helping your elderly loved one to plan out a whole new diet, don’t forget to factor in the occasional treat, to prevent it from becoming suffocating. Sugar-filled delicacies may be bad for our bodies, but they’re also highly pleasurable, providing a little boost for our mental health. It’s all about balance.
It’s also reasonable to include some convenience foods in the diet, to save cooking time. Good choices include snap frozen vegetables, low-sugar frozen or canned fruit, rotisserie chicken, low-salt soups, and bagged salads. Try to minimise cholesterol-boosting potato chips, biscuits, and other convenience foods high in trans fats (although these are fine for the odd treat).
What affects recommended foods for seniors?
Chronic health problems become more common with age, which can prohibit certain foods from being eaten. If your elderly loved one has been diagnosed with a disease such as diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, their doctor will provide the best advice on which foods to eat, and which to avoid. The most obvious example is diabetes, which is managed with a diet low in processed sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats. Medications can also interact with particular foods and become less effective. Again, a doctor should provide thorough advice on which foods are prohibited for certain medications and different lifestyles.
Another consideration is oral health. Our teeth have evolved to last a lifetime, but if we’ve spent our lives crunching through boiled sweets, caramels, and potato chips, it’s wise to limit them when we become seniors. Dentures can also be a problem if they’re ill-fitting—they affect a person’s ability to eat, which can lead to bad eating habits and malnutrition.
What foods should seniors avoid?
Seniors should try their best to avoid foods that are high in calories, and low in nutrients. Some common culprits include:
- Fries and potato chips
- White bread
- Sweetened cereals
- Fried food
- Pastries, cookies, and cakes
- Sugary drinks (including some fruit juices)
These foods are delicious, and the hardest to avoid. Rather than having to use our woeful willpower to avoid eating these types of foods, it’s much more effective to leave them on the supermarket shelves, where they’re out of reach and away from temptation. It’s also recommended to shop for groceries after you’ve had a meal, because shopping when your stomach is rumbling can lead to a trolley brimming with chips, pizzas, and chocolate, and all the food items we are trying to avoid while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
What about food safety?
Food safety is important no matter how old you are, but as our immune systems weaken with age, it becomes even more important. Many seniors would be well-versed in food safety after having spent a lifetime cooking, but depending on their health, their doctor might recommend against raw foods such as eggs, homemade mayonnaise, or certain salad dressings.
How to make healthy eating easy for seniors
When we plan improvements for our lives, it’s tempting to want to overhaul everything and start reaping the benefits as soon as possible. But this is often a mistake, especially when it comes to food. We start with the grandest of intentions, and when our self-control inevitably fails, we’re left feeling dejected and a little useless.
If we want to help our elderly loved ones to improve their diet, it’s more effective to make small, gradual changes. Help them to find one or two new healthy recipes to try, and when they’ve mastered them, introduce a couple more. If they’re devilish when it comes to treats, encourage them to stop buying just one or two things, as cutting everything out at once is doomed to failure.
Print recipes and recommended foods
Some seniors struggle with technology, so you might consider printing out new recipes and recommended foods, as keeping them in an obscure piece of technology makes it unnecessarily difficult. New cookbooks will help here too.
Keep an eye on their fridge
When you’re visiting your elderly loved one, have a sneaky look in their fridge and freezer to see what they’re eating, and if necessary, give them a little nudge in the right direction. You might also help out with their grocery shopping on occasion, which allows you to fill the trolley with good stuff, and limit the bad.
Recommend small, regular meals
It’s common for seniors to forget to eat, especially if they’re living by themselves and feeling lonely. Having a regular schedule for meals is a good way to break up the day, and creates a familiar routine that can help to improve their mental health. Regular meals also prevent them from becoming ravenous and gorging themselves on unhealthy food.
Food is one of life’s many pleasures, but as our immune systems weaken with age, a healthy diet becomes ever more important. Maintaining healthy eating for seniors can be challenging, but with a little help and encouragement, we can guide our elderly loved ones to healthier foods, providing them with the best sources of nutrients and energy.