Getting older can present challenges when it comes to choosing the right diet, as there are many changes in digestion, appetite, and food preferences. Best practices to help you find the right diet for older people include the following:
Incorporate small meals throughout the day
Since appetite decreases as we age, it may be hard to eat complete, big meals three times per day like most of us are used to. If time and schedule allows, try aiming for 5-6 small meals throughout the day to help increase the amount of food eaten in a less overwhelming matter. Eating every few hours also help keeps energy levels up, blood sugars stable, and the metabolism working properly.
Include high fiber carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are essential for energy, blood sugar regulation, and brain function. Choosing high fiber carbohydrates such as whole grains and beans also helps increase gastric motility and absorption of nutrients, as well as prevent constipation and discomfort in older adults. Examples include oatmeal, whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, high fiber cereals, peas, and beans.
Incorporate protein and fats at each meal
Combining carbohydrates with a source of protein and/or fat helps keep blood sugars stable and prevents any crashes later in the day. Protein is also essential for building muscle and omega 3 fats, in particular, lower inflammation and improve memory and mood. For example if you are having oatmeal for breakfast, you can stir in some low-fat cottage cheese (protein) and peanut butter or slivered almonds (healthy fats). For lunchtime, have sandwiches on wheat bread and try adding avocado for healthy fats and a lean protein such as turkey or tuna. Having more compact meals such as the oatmeal with mix-ins as opposed to a few different side items can help with achieving adequate caloric intake at meals.
Remember that smoothies make for a great meal or snack
Speaking of compact meals, if decreased appetite is an issue, sometimes drinking is easier than eating. You can more easily add a variety of nutrients and calories to a smoothie as opposed to serving a big plate of food. Older parents also tend to like sweeter things as their taste buds can change and adding chocolate or vanilla to smoothies can help make them more enjoyable. Some of my favorite combinations include Greek yogurt, bananas, peanut butter, cocoa powder, cottage cheese, berries, vanilla extract, and handful of spinach (I promise you can’t taste it!).
Consider making Meals for one
If you are preparing meals for a loved one, or if they are in turn cooking their own meals, often times the challenge can be cooking for one and not letting food go to waste. Some great protein food sources that can be quickly made for one person include eggs, canned beans, canned tuna or salmon, rotisserie chicken prepared at the store, yogurt and cottage cheese, frozen turkey burgers or 100% beef burgers that can be cooked one at a time. Planning meals ahead of time can help as you can also be sure to use leftovers effectively. Consider cooking 2-3 chicken plain chicken breasts at one time and then using them different ways throughout the week. For example topping the chicken with some jarred sauce and cheese one night, followed up with BBQ sauce the next. The chicken is already cooked so it takes the prep work out of it.
Fit in fruits and vegetables
Adding fresh fruits and vegetables can be a challenge because of their short shelf life. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are an excellent option and sometimes the nutrient content can even be greater as they are often frozen or canned at their peak. Frozen vegetables allow for heating up one serving at a time and can help make them softer and, thus, easier to chew and swallow. Canned vegetables are great to keep around as they last for a long time. Keep in mind that the key with fruits and vegetables is to aim for a variety of colors, which allows for a variety of vitamins and minerals.
The risk for dehydration increases as we age and can often be a reason for hospitalization. Make sure to have water or another preferred beverage available with meals and in close proximity throughout the rest of the day for easy access. You can definitely get creative with your drinks too, adding fresh fruit, all-natural flavoring or half juice and half water to help increase the taste and allow for greater consumption.
The suggestions above are a guide to help you find the right diet that fits your needs. It may end up being a mixture of the suggestions above. What is most important is identifying what is best for you.