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Food, Nutrition and Diet

Food choices for seniors

The nutrition needs of older adults merit attention.

The degenerative biological changes associated with old age can sometimes be retarded through appropriate lifestyle, including adequate nutrition, to support successful aging.  

Tasty, "nutrition value added" products are attractive to older adults as key components of a healthy lifestyle. Their appeal will escalate in this growing, increasingly educated and health-conscious population. Adequate nutrition is also contingent upon the availability and accessibility of foods that meet seniors' nutritional needs.

A growing body of evidence points to a need to re-evaluate the current nutrition recommendations for elderly adults.

Our knowledge about the nutrient intake of seniors is far from complete. The most common finding is a marked decrease in energy intake with age. Because they eat less, elders can have difficulty getting the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals. 

For instance, in a recent survey, the energy intake of 70% of women aged 65 to 74 years was below 1500 kcal/day and 25% were consuming less than half the recommended intake for calcium. This could further precipitate the loss of bone mass that occurs with aging.

The disease factor

The prevalence of disease increases as age advances. Poor nutrition worsens the impact of chronic disease, reduces resistance to infections, slows healing and increases use of the health care system. 

Using assessments based on risk factors associated with malnutrition, 40% to 50% of community-dwelling seniors seem to have a moderate to high risk of becoming malnourished, especially among those who live alone. The limited data on frailer seniors suggest that the picture is much worse.

Identifying seniors at risk for malnutrition is key to the empowerment of seniors and their caregivers to strive to maintain an optimal quality of life and to sustain successful aging.

Digestion issues

As we age, our bodies become less efficient at processing the foods that we eat.  Food takes longer to digest and there is generally less absorption of nutrients in the digestion process.  Compounded by a reduced appetite, malnutrition becomes an issue.

Seniors have special food needs

Special food needs arise as seniors grow older, especially for those with medical conditions and compromised mobility. For smaller appetites, foods are needed that provide high levels of protein, vitamins, minerals (and sometimes calories) in smaller volumes.

The nutrient density can be increased by ingredient selection, fortification or through the use of nutritional supplements.

Taste is an important consideration in food for the elderly adult; flavors need to be 2 to 12 times higher than for younger adults. Seniors' lack of appetite may be due in part to the decline in taste and smell sensations. 

Swallowing difficulties are common in older adults. Many need products that are easily chewed and swallowed but that also have an appetizing look, taste and mouth feel. 

With more community-based health services there will be a growing demand at retail for these specialized foods, which so far have been geared to the institutional market.

An individual's ability to shop, prepare and eat meals is fundamental to independent living. Services which facilitate shopping or provide meals and homemaking assistance will also be in greater demand to meet the food needs of the less autonomous senior in the community. Key stakeholders include family and professional caregivers.

Few reports exist on seniors' food and service needs and preferences

Most seniors enjoy relatively good health and are interested in conserving this well-being to maintain a high quality of life. The high nutrition awareness among seniors is likely to increase as the wellness-conscious baby boomers join their ranks.

Among seniors:

  • 75% consider nutrition to be extremely or very important in choosing their food;
  • they are more likely to report dietary changes to support healthy eating;
  • they are more concerned about fat, salt and sugar, and indicate a higher interest in fiber; and
  • about half read food packages as a source of nutrition information.
The senior consumer is attracted by:
  • high quality in food products, freshness and good taste;
  • foods with "nutrition value added"; these should include lower fat and sodium, higher fiber and calcium, moderate calorie content, and eventually nutraceuticals or functional foods;
  • convenience: products that are easy to prepare, take-home foods, delivered meals;
  • packaging that is easy to read, lift and open, available in single or double serving sizes, and economical, both to buy and to store;
  • product labels that are easy to understand and carry useful nutrition information, and additional nutrition information at retail; and
  • better store access: less walking, less stretching and stooping to reach the shelves, benches for rest, and delivery services.
Those 65 and older generally spend less on food than the rest of the population, due primarily to their lower food needs and less frequent eating out.

Meal services represent an important convenience to all seniors. To expand their reach, effective marketing will be needed to counter the perception that they are only for the "old and sick".

 

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