Nutrition for older adults

Nutrition and physical activity continue to be important as we grow older. A healthy combination of good food and exercise can delay or even reverse many of the problems associated with aging, helping older New Zealanders to continue living independently and enjoy a good quality of life.

To help you feel at your best:
  • Eat a variety of foods. Have at least three meals every day. Include plenty of different vegetables and fruits
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If your weight is a little low, have a snack between meals.
  • Have at least 6-8 glasses of fluids each day, such as water, tea, coffee, and low fat, calcium enriched milk, unless recommended otherwise by your doctor.
  • Try to be active every day

Important nutrients for older adults

The recommended intake of a number of nutrients is greater for older people than for younger age groups. As older people often think they need less food than younger ones, it is important to focus on the nutrients noted below. It can be difficult to meet the recommended intakes if food intake is small, so having at least three meals and between meal snacks, and keeping an eye on weight changes is important.
 
Protein provides energy and is also essential for the repair and maintenance of body tissues. Aim to have at least 1-2 serves per day of protein-rich foods from the lean meat and alternatives food group. These include lean red meat, fish, chicken, eggs, legumes (peas, beans and lentils), nuts and seeds.
 
Calcium is an essential nutrient as we grow older. A good intake of calcium can help prevent osteoporosis and fractures. Milk, yoghurt, cheese and other milk products are the best sources of calcium. However, many other foods contain calcium, including calcium-fortified soy milk, tinned fish (with bones), certain nuts including almonds, brazil and hazelnuts, legumes, tofu and wholegrain breads and cereals. Enjoy a milky Milo or coffee, some yoghurt, cheese, milk-based puddings, sauces and soups at least once a day to improve your calcium intake.
 
Vitamin D has an important role in bone health as it helps our bodies to absorb calcium from food. However, it is very difficult to get enough Vitamin D from your diet alone. The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight. Try to get out in the sunlight for at least 30 minutes a day, before 11am and after 3pm. Foods rich in vitamin D include oily fish, eggs, lean meat and dairy products.
If getting enough sun is difficult for you, discuss taking a Vitamin D supplement with your doctor
 
Folate is thought to help reduce the risk of illnesses such as heart disease and even some cancers. Not having enough folate may eventually lead to a type of anaemia called macrocytic anaemia, which can make you feel weak, tired, irritable and possibly give you palpitations. Include plenty of whole grain breads and cereals, dark coloured vegetables, fruit and legumes in your diet. When you go shopping, look for orange juices and cereals that are now fortified with folate.
 
Vitamin B12 is needed for normal blood and brain function. Deficiency can produce a variety of symptoms, including pale skin, low energy, tiredness, shortness of breath and palpitations. The majority of our vitamin B12 comes from animal foods, such as meat, eggs and dairy foods or vitamin B12 fortified foods. Have at least 1 serving of either lean meat, chicken, fish or eggs each day and at least 2 servings of milk or dairy products each day.
 
If you think you might be going short of any of these nutrients, or want to avoid eating any specific foods, ask your doctor for advice.

Preventing constipation

Constipation can be caused by certain medications, not being very active, not drinking enough or not eating enough high fibre foods.
* Eat plenty of high-fibre foods like fruits and vegetables (preferably with skins on). Kiwifruit and prunes, legumes, wholegrain or wholemeal breads and cereals are good sources of fibre.
* Have at least 6-8 glasses of fluids a day, including water, tea, coffee and milk to help the fibre work effectively.
* Keeping active every day will help
 
If constipation persists, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Cooking for one or two

Cooking nutritious meals for one or two people does not need to take a lot of time or effort and there are many ways to minimise waste.
  • Plan your meals for a week in advance and make a shopping list.
  • Go to the butchery counter, so you can buy meat in smaller portions, rather than the pre-packaged sizes in the chiller.
  • Cooking extra to freeze and reheat at a later stage can save you time and effort. Many meals, such as stews, casseroles, soups, curries and lasagne, freeze well. Place them in single portions in either small containers or freezer bags, making sure to label and date the food. These meals can be reheated in the microwave, oven or on the stove.
  • Dried, canned and frozen foods have a longer storage life, minimising waste. Baked beans, tinned sardines, spaghetti or creamed corn on toast can make a quick, easy and nutritious meal.
  • Store bread in the freezer and take out only as much as you need each day.
  • Ready meals are convenient and minimise waste. They are available in the fridge and freezer sections at the supermarket and delicatessens. Many companies in New Zealand also offer meal delivery services.
  • Keep a bag of frozen vegetables in your freezer. They are convenient and allow you to use only as much as you need.
  • 'Cooking for Older People' is a recipe book aimed at those cooking for one or two people. It is available from the Canterbury District Health Board - currently costing only $10. You might also like to read more about the Senior Chef programme - www.seniorchef.co.nz - which runs cooking classes for older adults throughout New Zealand.

Keeping active

Your level of activity will depend on your fitness levels and mobility. Talk to your doctor if you are just starting to exercise, if you have frail bones or any other issues that may affect your ability to exercise. Exercise is also important in helping maintain your balance as you get older, and reduce the risk of falls.
An easy way to get moving is by adding more activity into everyday life.
Walk wherever you can, rather than driving.
Gradually increase your activity as fitness improves. Aim for 30 minutes or more of moderate activity most days.
Find something you enjoy, to keep you motivated. Here are some ideas:
  • Group fitness classes – for example, yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates. Many YMCA’s hold classes for older people
  • Dancing - a fun way to burn lots of energy. Try rock ‘n’ roll, salsa, jazz, ballroom or even belly dancing!
  • Outdoor activities such as golf, walking and orienteering.
  • Swimming, aqua-jogging and aqua-aerobics are great low impact options.
  • Chair aerobics is available at some recreation centres - a great option for people who have limited mobility.
Check out your local recreation or leisure centre or sports club or www.sportnz.org.nz for other ideas and activities in your area.

Ideas for gaining weight and improving appetite

It is important to maintain a good weight as you age. However, eating alone, ill-fitting dentures or poor teeth, illness, difficulty shopping, being on a tight budget and some medications are factors that can leave you without much of an appetite. Talk to your doctor or a dietitian if you are concerned you aren’t eating or drinking enough, or if you are losing weight.
  • Small meals and snacks can be more tempting than being faced with a huge plate of food. Try scrambled eggs, creamed corn or baked beans on toast, creamy soups, a bowl of fruit topped with yoghurt or ice-cream. If you don’t feel like cooking yourself, try some of the ready meals that are available in the fridge and freezer sections at the supermarket and delicatessens. Many companies in New Zealand also offer meal delivery services.
  • Include high energy snacks in your diet. Try having a snack from the milk, yoghurt and cheese food group or the other food group.
  • Try adding extra milk powder to milk and milky drinks, such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, porridge and creamy soups. This will give you extra protein and calcium without adding bulk.
  • Enjoy a pudding or dessert every day
  • Use standard homogenised milk (with the dark blue cap)
  • Try having your main meal in the middle of the day as you’ll have more energy to prepare and eat your meals. Save the dessert to have with your lighter evening meal.

The eating environment

The environment in which we eat affects our appetite. If you are preparing meals for someone who is not eating well, consider the following:
  • Add a table cloth or flowers to a table, and make sure suitable cutlery is available for the meal being served.
  • We eat with our eyes, so always consider adding a garnish to make a meal as appealing as possible. For example, a piece of parsley or slice of tomato can transform the visual appeal of a pale coloured meal, such as fish pie or macaroni cheese.
  • Seasoning food is important to stimulate the appetite. Use a little iodised salt in cooking and avoid using salt at the table, and you can use herbs whenever possible to add extra flavour and interest . Make pepper, sauces and chutneys available on the dining table.
  • Eating with others helps to make a meal more enjoyable, so try to eat with those living alone from time to time and encourage them to join lunch clubs.

Recipe Book Suggestion

  • 'Cooking for Older People' is a recipe book aimed at those cooking for one or two people. Visit the Canterbury District Health Board website to order a recipe book, for a cost of $10.
Page reviewed April 2013