Monday, 18 January 2016 2:00:00 PM Australia/Melbourne

Regardless of our stage in life, it is important to choose a range of healthy foods to eat, and to enjoy eating and meal times as a social activity that you can look forward to.

As we age, however, our appetite and lifestyles can dramatically change. These changes can affect the types of foods we are exposed to, and the amount of food that we eat. A decreasing appetite or diminished ability to purchase and prepare healthy meals can mean that many older people simply are not getting enough essential vitamins, minerals or fibres – all of which can cause general ill health or exacerbate a chronic illness.

We often need fewer kilojoules as we get older because we tend to be less active, but our requirement for nutrients often increases – meaning food choices need to be high in nutrients but not high in energy. It is important to use every meal or snack as an opportunity for maximum nutrition and to find ways to improve your diet to fit with your personal tastes and lifestyle – even if this means asking for help from friends, family or other community services.

Here we have gathered a range of simple suggestions to help you maintain optimum eating habits as you get older. If you are unsure about your nutrition or the benefits of losing or gaining extra weight, talk to your doctor or an accredited dietician.Sometimes people with chronic health problems can put themselves at risk of malnutrition by restricting what they eat, so never dramatically change your diet without consulting a healthcare professional.

Anti-Ageing Antioxidants
Eating foods rich in antioxidants helps to fight free radicals – unstable oxygen molecules that contribute to the aging process. Antioxidants can be found in colourful vegetables and fruits such as berries, apples, grapes, tomatoes and pumpkin. Your diet should include five daily serves of fruit and vegetables. One serve is a medium-sized piece of fruit or a half-cup of cooked vegetables.

Berries are one of the greatest and easiest sources of antioxidants. Strawberries, blueberries and acai berries are just some examples of polyphenol-rich berries. These powerful compounds may help combat cancers and degenerative diseases of the brain. Frozen berries contain polyphenols, too, making it easy to include berries in your diet year-round.

Use Less Salt
Salt occurs naturally in many foods such as meat, eggs, milk and vegetables but much of the salt in our Australian diet comes from the salt added to foods by manufacturers or when adding salt yourself. Everyone requires a certain amount of salt but too much can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Older adults should restrict their intake of high salt foods such as cured meats (including ham, bacon and lunch meats), snack foods (such as potato chips and savoury pastries) and sauces (such as soy sauce). Look for reduced salt varieties when shopping and flavour foods with herbs and spices instead of adding salt.

Bone Health
Healthy bones are a key factor in long term health. Osteoporosis is characterised by a decrease in bone density which increases the risk of fractures. It commonly affects older people, especially women after menopause. Once calcium is lost from the bones it is difficult to replace, but there are ways to protect yourself including getting enough calcium, fluoride and vitamin D in your diet, as well as gentle exercise.

Milk and milk products such as yoghurt and cheese are high in calcium. Fish with soft, edible bones, such as canned salmon or sardines, are also good sources of calcium. Eating yogurt with live cultures can also help to aid digestion.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that women over 51 should consume four serves of dairy per day, while men aged 50–70 should consume two and a half, and men over 70 should have three and a half serves of dairy per day.

Diets that do not include dairy products are almost certain to contain much less calcium than the recommended amount, so for those intolerant to dairy we recommend you see an accredited dietician to identify foods, drinks or supplements to meet your nutritional requirements.

Keep Constipation at Bay
To prevent constipation it is important to include foods in your diet that are high in fibre. Whole grain cereals, wholemeal bread, fruit, dried fruit, dried peas, beans and lentils are excellent sources of fibre.

Fibre and water work well together so make sure you consume enough fluids throughout the day to help prevent and alleviate constipation. Water supports many other vital functions in the body including hydration, digestion and blood volume, however as you age you may not feel thirsty as often, even when your body needs fluid.

Aim to drink at least six times a day, and more in warmer weather or if you’re exercising. Tea, coffee, mineral water, soda water and reduced fat milk can all count towards your fluid intake during the day, but water is always best.

Healthy Teeth and Gums
Maintaining healthy teeth and gums is essential to help you enjoy eating, and to eat well. Missing teeth, sore gums or dentures that do not fit properly can all make it difficult to chew food, which might mean that you change what and how much you eat.

Have your teeth checked regularly and ensure your dentures are adjusted correctly so that you can continue to enjoy a variety of foods and drinks without restriction. Remember to visit your dentist whenever you are having difficulty with your teeth, gums or dentures.

If nuts, grains and hard fruits and vegetables are a problem for your teeth, go for milled whole grains, soft cooked and canned fruits and vegetables and nut pastes.

The Good Oils
Olive oil is a tasty monounsaturated fat that may positively affect memory. A compound in extra-virgin olive oil called oleocanthol is a natural anti-inflammatory and produces effects similar to ibuprofen. One study of men showed that olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oil, increased HDL, the good cholesterol that clears fat from blood vessel walls – a condition known as atherosclerosis.

Why Fish Is Brain Food
Fish has been called "brain food" because its fatty acids, DHA and EPA, are important to brain and nervous system development. Eating fish one to two times a week may also lower the risk of dementia – so top your salad with tuna or salmon instead of chicken.

Omega-3 fats found in fatty fish can also lower cholesterol and triglycerides, and help ease the inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis.

Fibre Filled Beans
Beans are simply super high in fibre, so adding them to your diet 2 to 3 times a week may help lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, prevent constipation and help digestion.  Beans also contain complex carbohydrates to help regulate glucose levels, which is important for people with diabetes. Top a salad with chickpeas or use beans in place of meat in soups.

Eat Like the Greeks
People living near the Mediterranean regularly incorporate olive oil, fish, vegetables, whole grains, and an occasional glass of red wine into their meals. Instead of salt, they rely on spices and herbs to flavour their foods. This "Mediterranean diet" can be beneficial to heart health, can reduce the risks of mild memory impairment and may help to ward off certain cancers.

Nutrition in Nuts
Whether eaten whole or ground into paste, nuts are packed with cholesterol-free protein and other nutrients. Almonds are rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects the body from cell damage and helps boosts the immune system. Pecans contain antioxidants. The unsaturated fats in walnuts can reduce LDL and raise HDL cholesterol. But nuts are not fat-free, so should be eaten in moderation.

Whole Grain Healthy
Eating whole grains can reduce your risk of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Choose whole grain breads and pastas; and brown or wild rice instead of white. Add barley into soups or plain oatmeal to foods like meatloaf. Whole grains are minimally processed, so they retain more nutritional value, and offer a great source of fibre.

Reduce Weight for Better Health
Keeping off extra weight puts less pressure on your joints, less strain on your heart and can reduce your risk of certain cancers. It gets tougher to do as your metabolism slows and as you lose muscle with age. However, we also know that people who are over 65 years often have better health if they carry a little extra weight and have a slightly higher body mass index.

Ssometimes, limiting fats, salts and sugars can mean a person who is at risk of malnutrition actually eats too few nutrients and kilojoules and can put themselves at risk. Consult your doctor, healthcare professional or accredited dietician for advice on a healthy weight loss program that is right for you.

Maintain a Healthy Weight
Sometimes as people grow older, it can be difficult for them to maintain a healthy weight. People who are underweight may have a harder time recovering from illness or injury.

It is important to eat three meals a day, with healthy snacks in between. Try whole milk instead of skim but limit your overall saturated fat to avoid high cholesterol. Eat the most calorie-heavy item in your meal first. If needed, add a meal supplement until you reach your desired weight.

If you are concerned about your weight, talk with you doctor about the best eating plan for you and your circumstances.

Keep it Social
Eating in a social environment is a great benefit to appetite stimulation – so making mealtimes a pleasant, social interaction that you can look forward to is key. For most cultures, mealtimes are not just a means to getting the nutrients we need but an important time of social contact, story sharing and sensory pleasure. In many homes the kitchen table is not just where people eat but the focal point of the home and an important social hub.

We also eat with all our senses – so colourful food that looks good, smells good and tastes great are all important factors in maintaining appetite. Foods that have particularly strong smells can be overpowering and may turn you off eating a dish completely, especially if you not particularly hungry to begin with.

And do not forget that mood is extremely important in maintaining healthy eating habits as we age. Exercise will not only stimulate the appetite but also increase endorphins that elevate mood, which in turns stimulates the appetite further.

Shop Like a Pro
Shopping can become more difficult for older people that live alone, or those with mobility issues or a lack of transport. So having a well-stocked cupboard with healthy food options that can keep for a long time without going stale makes it easier to easily prepare a nutritious meal. This may include:

  • canned fruit and canned or long life fruit juice
  • canned vegetables (reduced salt where possible)
  • baked beans and bean mixes
  • rice, spaghetti, macaroni, flour, rolled oats and breakfast cereals
  • canned, powdered and reduced fat long life milk and custard
  • canned meat and fish
  • canned soups
  • sauces (such as reduced fat soy sauce) and pastes (such as reduced fat and salt peanut butter)
  • vegetable oil such as olive oil or canola oil

 If your budget is more limited, plan well, use what is available and buy only what you need. If you are cooking for one, collect some healthy but quick and easy ideas and try to organise to eat regularly with friends or family.

There is a growing range of options to get the grocery shopping done without visiting the shops. These include online shopping services offered by most of the major supermarket chains, or people offering a shopping service. There are also a growing range of meals on wheels type services for fresh, nutritious meals delivered direct to your door. Ask a family member or visit your local council to learn more about the services available in your area. 

Having a healthy diet and making sure that you keep active will help you to maintain your health as you age. Remember to eat well, keep active and don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from family and friends.