WHY IS NUTRITION (ESPECIALLY) IMPORTANT TO OLDER ADULTS?Every person needs food to survive. The study of food and how it affects our bodies is called nutrition. Good nutrition is important for good health. Sometimes older people do not eat healthy foods. This can cause serious health problems such as obesity, under nutrition, or delayed recovery from illness. Food is a source of energy and nutrients.
Nutrients are the substances in food that help build and maintain the cells of the body. As we age, we generally become less active. Our bodies, therefore, require less energy from food although we still need lots of nutrients. So the food we eat should be high in nutrients.
This module tells you how to help older people get the nutrients that they need to maintain or enhance their quality of life. For a comprehensive read on the subject, check out our book Nutrition and Aging.
NUTRIENTS FOUND IN FOODS
The food and fluids we ingest provide important nutrients that our bodies require for longterm health. To get the nutrients you need, you must eat a balanced diet with all kinds of foods.
Below are some of the nutrients found in the foods we eat:
The best sources of protein are meat, milk, dairy products, and eggs. Plant foods provide protein if they are mixed with each other. Good protein mixes include beans with rice, lentils with bread, or vegetables with beans. Protein helps to build muscle and keep our immune systems healthy.
Older adults often lack protein in their diets. Here are some ways to increase protein intake:
- Add chopped, hard-cooked eggs to salads, vegetables and casseroles. If high cholesterol is a concern add only the egg white, not the yolk.
- Use milk to prepare hot cereal, soup, and puddings.
- Mix cottage cheese with, or use it to stuff, fruits and vegetables.
- Add cottage cheese to casseroles.
- Cook and use dried peas, legumes, beans, and tofu in soups or ethnic dishes.
- Add chopped meat or fish to salads, casseroles, and soups.
- Use peanut butter as a dip for raw fruits and vegetables.
- Spread peanut butter on sandwiches, toast, or crackers.
- Add nuts, seeds, and/or wheat germ to casseroles, breads, pancakes, and cookies.
- Sprinkle nuts, seeds, and/or wheat germ on fruit, cereal, ice cream, yogurt, and salads.
A diet high in fat can be harmful. The worst fats come from animal sources such as red meat and should only be eaten in very small amounts. However, there are “good” fats that come from fish and plant sources. These fats are called omega-3 fatty acids and are found in salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, lake trout, herring, and mackerel. Omega-3 fatty acids help protect the heart and decrease the amount of bad cholesterol in the blood. Other sources of “good” fat include tofu, soybeans, flaxseed, and vegetable oils. These sources contain a substance called alpha-linolenic acid, which can become omega-3 fatty acid in the body.
Carbohydrates help to give us energy. Carbohydrates come in two forms: simple and complex Sources of simple carbohydrates include white breads, white rice, and sugar products. Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest but are healthier for us than simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates include whole grain cereals, breads, and rice, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables.
Fiber is important to good health. Fiber helps to reduce constipation, lower cholesterol, and regulate blood sugar in diabetic clients. Good sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, and beans. Fiber can cause gas, stomach pains, or diarrhea if added too quickly and in large amounts to a diet. High fiber foods should be added gradually. Our bodies need time to adjust to a high fiber diet.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are found in all kinds of foods and are very important for good health. Most people can get the vitamins and minerals they need if they follow “Canada’s Food Guide” or the new Food Guide Pyramid (called MyPyramid) in the United States. Health Canada recommends that men and women over the age of 50 also take a daily vitamin D supplement of 10 µg (400 IU).
Other vitamins and minerals are available in pill form in cases where people do not or cannot get enough of these nutrients from their diets. No one should add vitamins and minerals to their diet until they talk to their doctors. Vitamins and minerals can be harmful if taken in very large amounts. Some of them can even interact with prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, and herbal preparations and cause bad side effects.
NUTRITIONAL TIPS FOR CAREGIVERS
Making sure tha elderly people receive proper nutrition can be a challenge. As a caregiver or healthworker, you can be very busy and it takes time and patience to help older people eat. But remember how important it is to good health to eat healthy foods and drink enough fluids.
- Sometimes older people and family members can forget just how important proper nutrition can be, so it is up to you to show them how to enjoy meals while still getting the proper amount of nutrients. Here are some ways to do both:
- Check on the person’s nutritional status frequently. Older adults can develop eating problems quickly. If you suspect that an older adult has a nutrition problem, take action immediately.
- If you are a healthworker do not take do not take “breaks” or meals when clients are eating their meals. This will help to make sure enough staff members are available to help clients eat. Work with your fellow healthcare workers to schedule your breaks and meals so they don’t interfere with helping your clients.
- Make sure commodes, urinals, and trash are removed from the person’s view when he or she is eating. No one wants to look at commodes, urinals, or trash when eating.
- Consider the eating area. Is it crowded, noisy, unpleasant? Perhaps your client would prefer to eat alone or in a quiet area with a friend. If your client is confused, a noisy environment may result in agitation. The client may be more confused and not able to focus on the meal.
- If appropriate, ensure that pain medication and pills to prevent vomiting are given before meals.
- Assist elderly people to sit up while eating. Avoid feeding person in bed, if possible. Help them to sit in a comfortable chair.
- Do not schedule visits or procedures during meal time.
- Assist elderly people to wash their hands before meals.
- Make sure elderly peoples’ dentures are in place and eyeglasses are on before mealtime.
- Offer mouth care before and after meals.
- Encourage elderly people to drink water often throughout the day (unless the physician has ordered that fluids be restricted).
- If the older person is not available when meals are served, keep their trays warm. No one likes to eat cold food!
- Help your elderly people and families learn about healthy eating.
- Find out what your client likes to eat. Pass that information on to the nutritionist if a nutritionist is involved in your client’s care.
- When able, encourage family members to help feed clients and/or to sit with them at meal times.
- Keep a careful record of the older person’s height and weight. Changes in weight may indicate too many or too few calories and nutrients. Remember that older adults may actually decrease in height as they age.
- Oral supplements should be given between meals. They should not take the place of regular meals and should not be served within the hour before a meal.
- Find out about the elderly person’s favorite foods. Ensure that some of those are included in the diet.
- When you are feeding someone, do not mix all the foods together. Offer one food at a time.