Nearly everyone’s jumping on the healthy-eating bandwagon: It’s now common knowledge that eating well — especially as we get older — can not only make you feel good, but also actually make your body work better. Still, getting older can provide some challenges when it comes to eating right: Metabolisms can decline, and nutrients don’t absorb quite as easily, making it more difficult to get all the vitamins the body needs.
“Studies have shown that older adults tend to have a decreased intake of calories, in addition to certain key nutrients,” says Andrea Abbe, R.N., L.D.N., clinical dietitian at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and protein are among these important nutrients. “This makes it especially important to assure that foods packed with nutrients are the mainstay of the diet.” Thankfully, there are many foods, readily available in your local grocery store, that can give you essential nutrients while also providing a menu that’s exciting and ever-changing.
“In general, the American diet tends to run low on fiber and omega-3 fatty acids — both have garnered much attention for health-related benefits,” says William “Turi” Braun, an associate professor in the Exercise Science Department at Shippensburg University. “The older adult may benefit from ensuring that the recommendations for these nutrients, along with calcium, are being met. Of course, the best-case scenario is for these nutrients to be delivered to the body in whole foods rather than through processed foods.” This means eating ingredients such as fresh fish — salmon specifically is known for its omega-3 fatty acid content. A general recommendation is to limit fish consumption to about three times per week, in order to gain health benefits but prevent excess intake of mercury. Try cutting smoked salmon into chunks and scattering it on a salad. Add nuts, an oil-and-vinegar-based dressing and plenty of veggies for a colorful, well-rounded dish.
“Omega-3 fats have been shown to have many health benefits,” adds Abbe. “Of interest to older adults are findings that this type of fat may lower heart disease risk and help relieve arthritis symptoms. Studies suggest that it also may help prevent memory loss. Depression symptoms may be reduced as well” — although she hastens to add that anti-depressant medications should not be discontinued unless ordered by a physician. Abbe recommends eating salmon, ground flax seed, walnuts, fortified eggs, herring, sardines or mackerel a few times a week to get your needed omega-3 intake.
Fiber, also important to keep in your diet, can be found in many fruits and vegetables, but the trick here is to give yourself a variety to choose from. “There is only so much kale or bananas that a person may tolerate,” says Braun. “But really, the produce aisles are fantastic places to select high-quality foods that hit the spectrum of nutrients.” Try cantaloupe, grapefruit, apricots, guava or oranges. Blueberries, says Abbe, like many bright and deep-colored fruits and vegetables, are also rich in antioxidants, which help prevent cell damage and may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. “I think the main rule with fruit and vegetables is that you can’t go wrong, particularly if they are fresh,” Braun says. Try a fruit smoothie — mix any combination of fruit, a small amount of fruit juice and some plain yogurt to reach the consistency you prefer — for breakfast or dessert.
When a large variety of fresh fruit isn’t available, particularly in the winter, beans can be an excellent source of fiber: “Kidney, pinto, navy, black and other kinds of beans promote heart health, provide good sources of fiber, help lower cholesterol, help with blood glucose control in diabetes and are excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin that is not as readily absorbed in older adults,” says Abbe. Of course, they’re also known as an alternate protein source. “Most Americans consume ample protein through meat and dairy products,” says Braun. “But, there are plenty of other sources for protein: beans, rice, peanut butter, bread, almonds, lentils, tofu.” Try looking beyond the meat counter to give your palate more variety.
All in all, when grocery shopping, get something within each food group, and be aware that some choices are better than others. “Whole grains should make up the bulk of our intake from the starch group,” says Abbe. “Choose whole-grain pasta, high-fiber cereal and whole-wheat bread. In the meat and dairy groups, the best choices are low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, beans and nuts, fish, poultry and lean meat. Fruits and vegetables should have bright and deep colors, since these are richer in phytonutrients — beneficial plant nutrients — and antioxidants.” And, she says, don’t overlook your fluid intake: “As our bodies age, we cannot sense dehydration quite as well. It is important to sip on fluids throughout the day, even if there is no sense of thirst. Remember, milk, low-sodium soup, herbal tea and the occasional glass of fruit juice can all help to meet your fluid needs. Incorporating a wide variety from all of the food groups will help ensure that the diet is adequate to meet nutritional needs.”
Asparagus and Smoked Salmon Salad
½ lb. fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
½ cup walnuts, broken into pieces
1 head red leaf lettuce, rinsed and torn
¼ cup frozen green peas, thawed
2 oz. smoked salmon, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Place asparagus in the pot and cook 5 minutes, just until tender. Drain and set aside. Place walnuts in a skillet over medium heat. Cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until lightly toasted. In a large bowl, toss together the asparagus, walnuts, red leaf lettuce, peas and salmon. In a separate bowl, mix olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Toss with the salad or serve on the side. Serves 4.
Hint: Try substituting half of the red leaf lettuce with spinach.
Crispy Baked Oatmeal
½ cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
3 cups old-fashioned oats
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup flaked coconut
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
In a bowl, combine eggs, oil and brown sugar. Combine the oats, baking powder, salt and cinnamon; add to egg mixture, stirring just until moistened. Stir in the coconut, raisins and chocolate chips. Spoon into a greased 13x9x2-inch baking dish. Bake, uncovered, at 350°F for 20-25 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Serve warm with milk if desired. Serves 4.
Simple Turkey Chili
1½ teaspoons olive oil
1 lb. ground turkey
1 onion, chopped
2 cups water
1 (28-oz.) can crushed tomatoes
1 (16-oz.) can kidney beans, drained, rinsed and mashed
1 Tablespoon garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons chili powder
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Place turkey in pot and cook until evenly brown. Stir in onion and cook until tender. Pour water into pot. Mix in tomatoes, kidney beans and garlic. Season with chili powder, paprika, oregano, cayenne pepper, cumin, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 30 minutes. Serves 8.
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