What should older adults eat to stay healthy?
Nutrition experts recommend a balanced Mediterranean diet, which includes lots of vegetables and fruits, plenty of fish and nuts, little meat, and chiefly olive oil for cooking.
This sounds like the standard dietary guidelines for young people, but there’s a key difference.
“Older people who are no longer as physically active, and therefore use less energy, correspondingly require fewer calories, but just as many micronutrients,” says German Geriatric Society (DGG) president Dr Rainer Wirth.
”So they need to eat smaller amounts.
“The micronutrient density of their food should then actually be higher, since this requirement doesn’t change.”
At what age does a person’s calorie requirements drop?
”It depends more on the extent of physical activity than on age,” Dr Wirth says, noting that some people at 80 are highly active and do sports, while “others at 70 are already quite sedentary or chronically ill and less mobile”.
Seniors who are bedridden with an illness for prolonged periods can lose a substantial amount of weight.
This is problematic because they’re not able to regain weight as quickly as young people are.
With every new bout of illness, they again lose several kilogrammes.
In the space of just a few years, they can lose 10 to 15 kilogrammes this way, Dr Wirth says, adding: “and it’s never only a loss of fat mass, but muscle mass as well.”
A vicious circle often starts.
Muscles typically atrophy in old age, and muscle loss increases considerably when older people are malnourished.
This impairs their mobility.
Insufficient intake of energy and protein often weakens their immune system too, and wounds heal more slowly.
To build muscle in old age, more strength training and protein intake are needed.
Elderly people in particular need protein for muscle-building.
Sources of protein include animal-based foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, and also legumes.
Dairy products contain calcium as well, which is important for bone health.
Dr Wirth advises seniors whose diet has too little protein or who have lost weight, to compensate by eating protein-enriched foods such as high-protein bread.
Supermarkets also sell high-protein yoghurt and quark.
It’s important that older people enjoy eating, as poor appetite is a common problem in old age.
“They’ll eat more when they have foods they like,” he remarks, adding that eating together with others can also get them to increase their calorie intake.
Denture-wearing can make eating more difficult, as can trouble chewing or swallowing.
Be that as it may, seniors shouldn’t – and mustn’t – avoid fruits, vegetables and wholegrain food products, says Theresa Stachelscheid, a nutritionist with the German Nutrition Society (DGE) who specialises in meals for the elderly.
To make them easier to eat, vegetables can be steamed, covered with broth, and transformed into a creamy vegetable soup with a hand blender, she points out.
“And if, for instance, you always liked muesli for breakfast, you can mix fine rolled oats or melt flakes (yield oat flakes) with pureed fruit and some yoghurt or milk.”
Another common problem in old age is not drinking a lot of fluids to avoid having to use the toilet at night or when you’re outside your home.
Drinking enough fluids is part of a healthy diet, however.
”Get the recommended daily intake of fluids ready right in the morning, for example two 0.75-litre bottles,” suggests Stachelscheid.
Water is the best choice, and can easily be spiced up.
“Add lemon or cucumber slices to the water, for example, or fresh herbs such as mint or lemon balm,” she says.
For variety, unsweetened herbal or fruit tea are healthy options, or juice mixed with sparkling mineral water. – By Christina Bachmann/dpa