Eating a well-balanced diet is important at any age. As you get older, eating well is an important factor in remaining healthy. A good diet helps maintain a healthy weight, keeps energy levels stable, and allows you to get the nutrients you need. Eating the right foods can also lower the risk of developing chronic health conditions.
If you’re looking after a parent or elderly relative, knowing what foods they should be eating and understanding how their nutritional needs change can help them live a happier, healthier life.
As our bodies get older, nutritional, appetites, and food habits can change in several ways. As bodies age they can become less mobile, resulting in fewer calories being burned off. Muscle mass can also be lost, causing metabolism to slow down. This means fewer calories are required as consuming more calories than are needed will result in weight gain.
Many older people can also experience a loss of appetite as they age, and it’s common for the sense of smell and taste to diminish. This can also result in eating less.
As fewer calories are required, eating less isn’t necessarily a problem, but if you’re looking after an elderly parent, it’s important to ensure they’re eating enough calories and nutrients to maintain healthy organs, bones, and muscles.
Another factor to account for is their immune system, which weakens with age. A weaker immune system can raise the risk of food poisoning. Therefore, you may need to take extra precautions when it comes to food safety. Avoiding food with raw eggs and ensuring meat is thoroughly cooked and fruit and vegetables are washed are all great safeguards.
There are certain chronic health problems that older people are more susceptible to. This can include diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and high cholesterol. If your parent is living with these, to help them manage, their doctor might recommend a change to their diet. You can assist by understanding what foods are best for them, and work on a meal plan to support their health.
There are a number of practical ways you can help your parent eat the best diet throughout their golden years. Here are a few things to prioritize…
1. Nutrient-Rich Foods
In order for your parent to consume all the nutrients they need, it’s important to eat a variety of food. Every meal should ideally look like a rainbow and food should be high in fibre, low in salt or sodium, and contain Vitamin D, which is an important mineral as we age.
Whether you’re preparing your parent’s meals yourself or helping them manage on their own, aim for their plates to be filled with:
Remember, even though your parent’s caloric needs will probably decrease, their nutrient needs will stay the same, or might even increase. Foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients should be avoided (if recommended by their doctor) or saved for the occasional treat.
2. Fibre-Rich Foods
Eating enough fibre can help your parent avoid constipation and other digestive problems. Soluble fibre is also important for maintaining healthy cholesterol. Look for foods such as whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils, fruits, vegetables, oats, and oat bran.
Water is an essential nutrient too. It can be easy to forget about drinking water, but it’s important for your parent to keep hydrated. Encourage them to drink small amounts of fluid throughout the day. Drinks such as tea, coffee, and water are best, and anything containing sugar should be kept to a minimum if possible.
4. Food Labels
Understanding what’s in the food your parent eats and knowing the fat and calorie content is key to ensuring they eat a well-balanced diet. Food manufacturers include labels on the food available at supermarkets to help make this easier. These labels include information such as how much fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt is in the food.
Studying these labels can help you make the right choices, so encourage your parent to look at them and compare them with other options when shopping.
If your parent isn’t aware of food levels, spend time together in the shops talking about them until they feel confident choosing on their own.
5. Healthy Convenience Foods
If your parent eats a lot of convenience foods, then encourage them to reach for the healthiest options. Not all convenience foods are filled with sodium and fat. There are plenty available that can be healthy, easy to prepare, and nutritious.
Look for foods such as:
Remember to check the labels and opt for options with low salt, sugar, and fat and high in vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
NHS - Advice on eating enough as you get older
Age UK - Help and support for carers
Elder.org - Tips for caregivers of elderly parents