Encourage Healthy Eating Habits
For most, helping to develop a better diet is one of most powerful tools toward creating a better quality of life.
The saying, “you are what you eat” is more than just a wives tale you may have heard growing up. Research has demonstrated that our nutrition can affect multiple areas of our physical and cognitive health. As your loved one continues to age, nutrition becomes an even larger part of their overall wellness, while sometimes simultaneously becoming a challenge.
According to the USDA, eating well in old age can help to maintain energy levels, as well as prevent chronic medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes. However, older adults are often challenged with obstacles that make healthy nutrition seem difficult. Chronic pain or fatigue can make preparing a meal seem like a daunting task, while medical conditions like a stroke can cause swallowing difficulties that make a prescribed diet imperative.
Fortunately, healthy eating is possible at every age, and can be achieved with any medical condition. You just need to know a few tips to pass along to your older loved one, as well as know how to make eating healthy as easy as possible. Here are just a few ideas to get you started as you encourage healthy eating habits for your aging loved one.
Make Water More Exciting
Staying hydrated is important for all ages, but older adults are especially vulnerable to serious consequences of dehydration. Seniors who do not drink enough water can experience increased fall risk, acute confusion, and even serious infection. To avoid these potentially catastrophic consequences, be sure your older loved one is staying hydrated.
Water is always the best choice, as sugary drinks can contribute to diabetes or weight gain and caffeinated or alcoholic beverages can contribute to dehydration. Unfortunately, water is not always the first choice for seniors. Try to make water a bit more exciting by adding slices of citrus, like lemon or orange, to the cup. Water should also be readily accessible throughout the day in order to increase the chances of drinking. Have a water bottle in your loved one’s bag, as well as a few in the fridge.
Some seniors, especially those who take diuretic medications, may be reluctant to drink water for fear of too many trips to the bathroom. To ease this concern, be sure you encourage your loved one to head to the bathroom before you leave the home, as well as know where bathrooms are at your destination.
Eat the Rainbow
Fruits and veggies are an important staple to any diet, including seniors. The National Institute on Aging notes that like most adults, seniors often are not eating enough fruits and vegetables to keep them as healthy as possible. Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. An easy way to assure your loved one is getting enough fruits and vegetables is to encourage them to “eat the rainbow” on their plates, meaning to try to eat every color at least daily.
To encourage this healthy habit, have plenty of fresh fruits on hand for your loved one to eat. If possible, prepare the foods each week after a grocery trip. This way, strawberries are already washed and cut, carrots are already chopped, and everything is ready to eat with minimal effort.
You can also encourage your loved one to try out a meatless meal once per week, focusing on increasing their fruit and vegetable intake during that time. Big salads taste great in the summer time, as do fruit and yogurt parfaits or veggie packed smoothies. In the winter, aim for squeezing extra vegetables into hearty soups.
Don’t Forget Whole Grains
Whole grains are important for seniors for their fiber and other health benefits. While not always the case, many seniors live a more sedentary lifestyle than their younger counterparts, which can lead to digestive issues such as constipation. Whole grain intake can eliminate that issue, assuring your loved one is comfortable.
Try whole grain breads instead of white, and oatmeal instead of sugary cereal. You can also add barley to soups and swap out white rice for quinoa or farro.
Protein Is Important Too
Seniors can have an increased risk of skin issues, such as pressure ulcers, decreased healing speed after an incision, or other breakdown. Whether it is due to a sedentary lifestyle, thinner skin because of changes that come with aging, or a side effect from prescription medications, a slow healing wound can cause major issues.
Fortunately, you can encourage an increase in protein intake if there are skin healing issues. Protein is often one way that geriatricians combat skin breakdown for seniors over the age of 60, and assuring you are eating lean proteins can help avoid skin issues completely.
Opt for lean protein instead of beef, choosing chicken or fish when possible. Salmon is an excellent choice, packed full of protein as well as vitamins that encourage brain health. As with all food, when eating, be sure your loved one is eating only one serving of protein.
If they do not prefer meat, you can still encourage healthy protein intake by preparing meals with chickpeas, beans, peanuts, or other legumes. An occasional protein shake can also be a healthy way to get the needed benefits when they may be otherwise reluctant to eat.
Encouraging healthy eating habits includes food and beverage choice, as well as working closely with a doctor. Prescription medications, for example, can have side effects that leave seniors without an appetite, or with altered taste buds that make once favorite foods taste strange. Talk to your loved one’s doctor to assure you are aware of any potential side effects, as well as any food related worries.
If your loved one does not have much of an appetite, or if your loved one has dementia, you may be struggling with getting any food into their mouths, let alone healthy choices. In these cases, experiment with eating small snacks several times during the day. Large meals, three times per day, may seem more traditional but can seem overwhelming to a senior living without an appetite or with dementia.
Finally, if your loved one is living with cancer or in the midst of cancer treatments, you may be faced with additional challenges when it comes to food choice and intake. Mouth sores and nausea can cause rapid weight loss for seniors especially. Try to pack foods your loved one can tolerate with nutrients, making homemade popsicles with spinach and strawberries or adding extra pureed vegetables to a soup. If your loved one continues to lose weight, talk to their oncologist for more support.
You are more likely able to encourage healthy eating choices if you are able to connect with your loved one either at the grocery store or around the dinner table. If you live nearby, try to eat a meal together a few times per month or hit the grocery store together. If you live far away, work with local support services like Meals on Wheels or other relatives to check in on your loved one’s fridge or meal choices.
- National Institute on Aging. (2017, June 15). Know Your Food Groups. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/know-your-food-groups
- United States Department of Agriculture. (2017, Aug 9). Healthy eating as we age. Retrieved from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/older-adults