Maintaining a Nutritious Diet in the Midst of Health Challenges
“I didn’t know that I’d need to be such an expert about my own nutrition,” John laughed. Following a stroke last fall, he was admitted to rehabilitation facility before returning to his assisted living community. “I came in pretty shaken up and was glad for the time to, literally, get back on my feet. It was amazing to me how much my diet was so important to my rehabilitation program.”
March is National Nutrition Month. To help maintain or regain health, good nutrition is essential. With aging, disease and taking medications, maintaining a healthy diet can be a challenge.
- If physical limitations, such as stroke, arthritis or Parkinson’s disease make eating difficult or discouraging, an occupational therapist can help you learn to eat independently. Adaptive devices such as large-handled spoons and nonskid plates can also help.
- Our tastes change. As we age, our senses dull. Reductions in sight and smell can make it difficult to find food appetizing or even see it clearly enough to eat. Brightly colored foods and plates may be helpful for increasing food consumption. Studies show that if you eat the colors of the rainbow in your fruits and vegetables, you increase your intake of important vitamins and minerals.
- Chewing and swallowing can also be a problem. This might be caused by missing teeth, poorly fitted dentures, stroke or other conditions that affect swallowing. Good dental care is vital. And therapy is available to help with swallowing difficulties. Meals can be prepared in a special way, with food processed to make eating easier.
- Depression and loneliness may cause loss of appetite. This is a common issue for those who live alone, and especially among those who don’t drive any longer. Eating is often a social activity, and if you live alone, you may be less likely to prepare nutritious meals. It’s further compounded if you must rely on others to bring groceries.
- Seniors on a limited income may skimp on nutritious food. But help is available through a variety of senior nutritional programs, such as Meals on Wheels. See the resources at the end of this article to find online recipes for nourishing meals.
- Some medications change the way our bodies process food. Some even block the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. Other drugs decrease the appetite.
- Some digestive disorders make it harder for the body to use nutrients.
Changing dietary needs as we age
As we grow older, changes occur in the way our bodies use food or in our appetite. We need to “eat smart” by focusing on proper portions of nutrient-rich foods.
“Like a lot of older adults, I struggled with being overweight,” John said. “I just didn’t eat the right foods. Too much starch and salt that increased my risk for stroke.”
An easy way to identify a well-balanced diet
A nutritious diet provides sufficient vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fat—but not too much fat! Learn how to create a diet that reflects a good balance of foods from all the food groups. Some people use a dinner plate as a portion guide. For example, proteins and complex carbohydrates make up about half the plate, with the other half comprised of vegetables and/or salad.
“During my rehabilitation, the staff would serve up a plate that way, and would talk with me about the flavors and portion sizes, as well as watching how I chewed and swallowed,” John recalls. “The nutrition staff and I became partners and celebrated, together, when I achieved new milestones in my recovery.”
Who can help?
Your healthcare provider can give you the information you need to eat well, including offering a referral to a dietitian or nutritionist who is knowledgeable of the nutritional needs of older adults. If your loved one is at a skilled nursing or assisted living facility, talk with your site administrator or nutrition services director. There are also many online resources available, including the USDA’s www.nutrition.gov consumer website. The USDA also offers advice for healthy eating on a budget.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor or nutritionist about an eating plan that’s right for you.