Improving Senior Nutrition
Spread on the butter. Grill that steak. Break out the blueberry cobbler. Updated nutritional research now indicates that high-quality fats and fruit-based desserts are welcomed back on Americans’ plates.
The 1990s nutritional directive to eat nonfat and low-fat foods infused with a generous helping of carbohydrates is basically a myth, notes registered dietitian Heidi Hoffman, M.P.H., owner and director of the Vibrant Living Wellness Center in Sierra Madre, California.
“Based on research, we used to think that a high-fat diet would lead to heart disease,” Hoffman said. “Now with a lot more research, this is not the case anymore. Actually, a high-sugar diet will do more damage than a high-fat diet. People with high cholesterol are typically given directions to eat a low-fat diet, but that creates other problems.”
Lowering cholesterol intake too much interferes with a person’s ability to produce necessary hormones that run overall body functions, including the regulation of blood pressure and the balance of sodium and water levels. Instead, Hoffman and a number of nutritional experts are advocating for meals and snacks with a moderate amount of healthier fats.
“The one fat that is back in is butter,” Hoffman said. “We’ve come full circle. The margarine and lower-fat butters are often laden with chemicals and can do more damage than a pad of butter. Getting people to eat butter again is kind of hard because they are used to margarine or using something that is a little more fake, but butter actually is good for you. Just don’t overdo it.”
With years of dietary work among seniors in hospitals, long-term care facilities and assisted living communities, Hoffman noticed that aging adults are ingrained in the decades-ago thinking that all saturated fats are the enemy. “I think it’s important to educate the older population that research has changed and we can gently introduce some things that people can do differently with their nutrition,” Hoffman pointed out.
Gradual changes in food choices may include switching from sautéing foods in olive oil to using cooking oil in the pan. Natural, organic fruits and vegetables are shown to have higher nutrient levels and fewer pesticides. Introducing fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles and kefir also boost the body’s digestion and immune systems.
Renee Concialdi, co-owner of Right at Home in Pasadena, California, works with Hoffman on nutritional tools for area seniors. “We truly care about improving the life of those we serve,” Concialdi said. “With seniors, we find that some are not staying hydrated or they do not have the ability or energy to make their own healthy meals.” This is when Right at Home caregivers can step in to assist with meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking nourishing foods.
The role of nutrition in Alzheimer’s and dementia is a key focus of both Hoffman and Concialdi. “We have a good number of clients in their 80s and 90s with later-stage Alzheimer’s, but we are also seeing more clients in their 60s with early Alzheimer’s,” Concialdi explained.
To help with the dietary connections between food and good health, Hoffman and Concialdi are teaming up to educate the public on how to be, as Hoffman describes, “protective against Alzheimer’s.” The respected dietician dishes up extra food for thought in standing against the onset of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
“Continued research is finding that Alzheimer’s is more about the brain’s cells breaking down and the body attacking itself. This circles back to inflammation,” Hoffman said. “Some of the things we recommend are a high folate-rich, vegetable diet. Beans and greens are really high in folate. Add blueberries, which are high in antioxidants. Also introduce fermented foods—have the sauerkraut and pickles.”
For those elders who are dealing with cognitive disease, Hoffman also encourages family caregivers to be aware of food consistency to help with chewing and swallowing issues.
“Do the elders need soft or pureed foods? A lot of time as people age and dementia sets in, they will feel frustrated at times if they are not allowed to be a part of things,” Hoffman noted. “This is where offering finger foods can help.”
If a family member is concerned that a parent or older loved one is not getting enough calories, add extra protein, protein powder or milk to foods to create more calories. Because taste buds change with age, many seniors cannot taste all the flavors and may crave primarily salty or sweet foods, which can lead to nutritional imbalances.
“There are a variety of things that family caregivers can do to help their seniors,” Hoffman added. “There are ways to honor an older person’s food preferences while at the same time giving the elder some guidance. We can still help elders get pleasure from food, and still make sure they are well-fed.”
An award-winning journalist who has documented stories in nearly 20 countries, Beth Lueders is an author, writer and speaker who frequently reports on diverse topics, including aging and health issues for both U.S. and international corporations.