Healthy eating as we age

As kids, we’re told to ‘eat your greens to help you grow up healthy and strong’, but what happens once we’re grown ups – does this still apply?

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

Changes in needs

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. Changes to energy requirements: After the age of 50, we start to experience a gradual loss in muscle mass as a rate of 0.5-1% per year. This starts slowly but is accelerated by inadequate amounts of physical activity, which already generally declines as we get older. As a result, older people need to consumer fewer kilojoules to avoid unhealthy weight gain.

What to do:

  • Use the Australian Dietary Guidelines as a guide for eating nutritious foods including plenty of fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, lean protein and dairy. Watch your portion sizes and balance your plate at main meals- aiming to fill half the plate with vegetables or salad, a quarter with lean protein and a quarter with a source of carbohydrates (potato, pasta, rice, or bread). 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 isn’t always a normal part of ageing and you may need to review your food intake.
  • Build aerobic and strength activities into your day, aiming to achieve the Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommendations of 30 minutes of moderate activity most days, including a range of strength, balance and flexibility activities. Remember- you don’t need to sweat and puff to benefit from physical activity. Any movement will benefit your overall wellbeing. Before starting any new activity or exercise, be sure to check with you GP, or an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and build up slowly.

2. Changes in 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 is to add more salt, however too much salt in the diet can increase the risk of high blood pressure and chronic disease. Most adults only need around 1 – 2 g of salt (460 – 920 mg sodium) per day to function.

What to do: Try flavouring food 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, your appetite can also decrease. This creates a 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.

What to do: If having 3 meals a day seems overwhelming, you can break it up into 5 or 6 smaller meals. Gentle movement before meals, such as a short walk, can also help to work up an appetite.

4. Micro-nutrient deficiencies: People aged over 60 need more of certain nutrients than younger people. It can sometimes be hard to meet these needs when dealing with the changes in senses and appetite that have been mentioned.

What to do: Use every meal and snack as an opportunity to get maximum nutrition and the vitamins and minerals that are most important for healthy ageing. The most important nutrients and their food sources have been outlined in the table below. For an idea on how much of these foods to incorporate into your diet, check out the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Adapted from the Australian Government Department of Veteran’s Affairs—Healthy Eating for Healthy Ageing.

Cooking for fewer people

When there’s 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 be sure you’re getting the nutrition you need without having to cook up a storm. Some ways are:

  • Cook big batches: When you do feel like cooking, make the most of the opportunity by cooking a big meal and separate it into single portions for future. You can keep most leftovers in the freezer for 2-6 months.
  • Shop smarter: Instead of buying in bulk when you go to the supermarket, try shopping at a deli or produce shop to buy exactly what you need. This way you can buy a chicken breast or steak and a couple of potatoes instead of a whole packet. This will not only save you money but minimise food waste.
  • Recipes: Keep an eye out for recipes you can easily make for one person – pasta, omelettes, and quesadillas are a great start.
  • Quick foods: Keep some healthier convenience foods on-hand to save time and avoid cooking every night. Frozen or low-salt canned vegetables can be added to stir-fries, casseroles, or curries. Frozen unsweetened fruit or canned fruit (in natural juice) can be a great snack or addition to cereal or a smoothie.
  • Food safety: As we age, our immune system weakens which can raise our risk of food-poisoning. Use proper food safety techniques and precautions as a way to keep yourself healthy.
  • Eating out: If you do choose to order out on occasion, look for menu options with more vegetables, lean protein and wholegrains. Try to avoid deep fried foods and high sugar options where possible.

Tips for shopping

Sometimes the biggest barrier to healthy eating for older people is being able to access the foods they need! If getting to the shops is a struggle there’s a number of things you can plan into your routine to be sure you don’t get caught out.
Pre-plan your meals for the week and write a shopping list. This will help 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, shop online and have a friend or family member pick up the groceries for you.

When shopping, stock up on foods with a long shelf life such as rice, pasta, canned soups, vegetables and fruit, and sauces and oils. This means your cupboard will be well stocked, and you’ll have a readily available supply if you get sick or can’t shop. Keep in mind that some packaged food can also be high in hidden salt or sugar. Look for the ‘no added salt’ varieties or check the nutrition label. Look for products that have less than 120mg of salt and less than 15g of sugar per 100g.

If you are looking for some support to take your health to the next level, My health for life offers a free six-month program where you work with a health coach to achieve your goals.

If you’re after some more individualised advice, an Accredited Practising Dietitian or Accredited Exercise Physiologist can assist in providing nutrition and exercise tips that meet your needs. To find a dietitian in your area, visit the Dietitians Australia website. For an Exercise Physiologist, visit the Exercise and Sports Science Australia website.