Healthy eating through the ages

When we’re kids, we’re told to ‘eat your greens to help you grow up healthy and strong’, but what happens once we’re grown? Does this slogan still apply?

Good nutrition is integral to health across the whole lifespan, even for older adults or those 65 years or older. The food and drinks that make up a healthy diet will differ for this age group, compared to when they’re younger and it can be difficult to navigate exactly what it is that KEEPS us healthy and strong. We’re here to share the top considerations for older people who want to incorporate nutrition into their routine.

Changes in requirements

As we age, there are a number of physiological changes we need to take into consideration when planning out what we eat or drink. These include:

1. Metabolism

As we age, our metabolism naturally slows down due to muscle loss, being less active and the natural aging of our metabolic processes. Whilst this is a normal process, we need to plan this into our lifestyle to avoid unhealthy weight gain. Aim to eat to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and avoid relying on food and drinks containing saturated fat, added salt and sugars and alcohol. At the same time, maintain your levels of physical activity, aiming for at least 30 minutes of activity on most days. This doesn’t have to be a planned exercise class or run around the block. The best movement is the one that works for you. Try out dancing, tennis, or even gardening! A simple way to check if the amount of food you’re eating suits your requirements is to check your weight regularly. Losing or gaining weight is not always a normal part of ageing, and you may need to review your food intake.

2. Altered senses

Many older people experience a loss of taste and smell as their taste buds and olfactory sensory neurons (the sensory cells within the nose that allow us to smell) begin to change. When foods start to taste different, the first response by many is to add more salt. Despite this preference, older adults actually need less salt than younger people. To avoid the impacts of too much salt on blood pressure and other chronic disease, try flavouring with acids like lemon juice or vinegar. Herbs and spices such as pepper, garlic, ginger, turmeric, paprika, or fresh herbs can also bring out flavours.

3. Change in appetite

As you get older and your metabolism slows, your appetite can also decrease. This puts us at risk of not getting the vitamins and minerals we need to keep us fighting fit. To combat this keep your meals interesting by experimenting with different colours, flavours, smells, and textures. If having three bigger meals seems overwhelming, trying breaking it up into six smaller meals. You could also try to drink your nutrients—drinks like a fruit smoothie with milk are full of protein to keep you going.

4. Digestion

Due to the slowing of the metabolism and digestive system, we generate less saliva and stomach acid as we get older – the components which usually break down food into the vitamins and minerals our bodies need. This can put us at risk of micro-nutrient deficiencies, especially as our requirements for certain nutrients increases as we age. Use every meal and snack as an opportunity for maximum nutrition and to get in the vitamins and minerals that are most important for healthy ageing.

Health and Wellbeing Queensland Public Health Nutritionist, Sherridan Cluff, has outlined the most important nutrients and their food sources below. For an idea on how much of these foods to incorporate into your diet, check out the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Cooking for one or two

When there’s just one or two of you at home, it can be hard to find the motivation to pull out the cookbooks and put together a meal. There are plenty of ways to make sure you’re getting the nutrition you need without having to cook up a storm. Some tips include:

  • When you do feel like cooking, make the most of the opportunity and cook up a big batch and separate them in single portions, leaving them available for another time. You can keep most leftovers in the freezer for 2-6 months.
  • Instead of buying bulk when you go to the supermarket, try shopping at a deli or produce shop and buy exactly what you need. This way you can buy one chicken breast or steak and a couple of potatoes instead of a whole packet. This will save on cost and food waste.
  • Keep an eye out for recipes that can be easy to make for one person. Sandwiches, omelettes, and quesadillas are a great start.
  • Keep some healthier convenience foods on hand to save time and avoid having to cook every night. Frozen or low-sodium canned vegetables can be great to throw straight into stir-fries, casseroles or curries. Frozen unsweetened fruit or low-sugar canned fruit can be a great snack or addition to some cereal or a smoothie.
  • If you want to reignite your passion with cooking or add some more recipes to your repertoire, Jamie’s Ministry of Food run online and in-person courses to help you learn great recipes and cooking techniques. Courses run regularly – check out their schedule to see if there’s a course running near you soon.

Food safety

When cooking, it’s important not to forget about food safety. As we age, our immune system weakens which can raise our risk of food-poisoning. Using proper food safety techniques and precautions as a way to keep yourself healthy. Some ways to do this include:

  • Put perishable foods in the fridge within two hours of cooking or bringing home from the shops
  • Thaw frozen food in the fridge or microwave, not on the kitchen bench
  • Do no refreeze food once it has been thawed
  • Eat leftovers from the fridge within two days
  • Reheat leftovers until they are steaming hot
  • Raw meat should be cut on non-porous cutting boards – avoid cutting meat on a wooden cutting board.

Tips for shopping

Sometimes the biggest barrier to healthier eating for older people, is being able to access the foods they need! If getting to the shops is a struggle there are a number of things you can plan into your routine to make sure you don’t get caught out.

Pre-plan your meals for the week and write a shopping list. This will help to make sure you pick up everything you need, don’t spend more than you intend, and won’t need to pop back down to the shops later. If supermarket accessibility or transport is a worry, check if your local store offers home delivery services. You could shop online and have a friend or family member pick up the groceries for you.

When you do get to the shops, it can be a good idea to stock up on foods with a long shelf life – rice, pasta, canned soups, vegetables and fruit, and sauces and oils. This will mean your cupboard will be well stocked, and you’ll have a readily available supply if you get sick or you have trouble accessing food stores.