Never before has so much good nutritional advice been available from so many sources -- from nutrition facts panels on food labels to books by highly respected experts.
But there’s plenty of misinformation out there, too. For seniors looking for reliable information about healthy aging and nutrition, separating facts from fiction can be tricky. Most standard dietary advice is geared to middle-aged Americans, not seniors. Only recently have researchers looked closely at the specific nutritional needs in older adults. Their findings have toppled more than a few myths about nutrition and aging.
Myth: Once you reach your 60s, metabolism slows down and you need fewer nutrients.
Fact: While it’s true that older people typically require fewer calories than young adults, they actually need more of certain nutrients. The reason: As we age, our bodies are less efficient at making or absorbing some vitamins and minerals. The skin’s ability to generate vitamin D from sunlight declines. The body’s ability to absorb B12 also decreases.
“With age, the requirements for calcium, vitamin D, and B12 may all increase,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, senior scientist and director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
Because seniors typically need fewer calories yet more of some key nutrients, they must take special care to eat nutrient-rich foods.
Myth: Older adults don’t need to worry about becoming overweight or obese.
Fact: Excess weight is a growing problem even among older Americans, says Lichtenstein. The culprit for people of all ages is simple: Consuming more calories than needed. Those extra calories are then stored as body fat. Excess body fat increases the risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Myth: If you don’t have a weight problem, you can eat whatever you like.
Fact: “Being overweight certainly increases the risk of chronic illnesses,” says Nancy Wellman, RD, past president of the American Dietetic Association. “But even if you’re slim, a poor diet can raise your risks of developing any of these chronic diseases.” Diets overloaded with saturated fat are linked to cardiovascular problems, for example. The bottom line: Following healthy nutrition advice is important whether you’re thin or fat.
Myth: If you don’t feel like eating, it’s OK to skip a meal.
Fact: Loss of appetite is a common complaint among older adults, leading many to skip meals. That’s a bad idea for several reasons.
First, people who skip a meal because they’re not hungry can later gorge on high-calorie, nutrient-poor snacks between meals. Skipping meals can also cause blood sugar levels to fall too low; then when you do eat a big meal, they can surge too high. Skipping meals, paradoxically, can also suppress appetite. That can be a problem for older people who already suffer from a loss of appetite.
“The best advice is to always start your day with a healthy breakfast, since appetite is usually best in the morning,” says Wellman. “Then make sure you eat something at every meal time.”
Myth: If you drink fluids when you feel thirsty, you won’t become dehydrated.
Fact: “Physiological changes associated with aging mean that the sensation of hydration is less accurate as we age,” says Lichtenstein. “Older people may not feel thirsty even when they’re becoming dehydrated.”
There are no set guidelines for how much each of us should drink, since fluid requirements vary widely depending on body size, weather, activity level and other factors. The best advice: drink liquids regularly throughout the day. If you’re trying to lose weight, choose water or zero-calorie drinks.
Myth: Dividing meals in half and keeping leftovers is a great way to save money and time.
Fact: While it’s true that leftovers can make cooking easier and help tight budgets go farther, there are dangers.
“Seniors who get meals delivered to their homes through programs such as Meals-on-Wheels should avoid dividing those meals into two,” says Kathleen Niedert, RD, director of clinical nutrition and dining services for Western Home Communities in Iowa and a leading advisor to the American Dietetic Association. “These meals are usually prepared to give you balanced nutrition. If you divide one meal into two, you can easily fall short on key nutrients.”
Storing leftovers also raises the risk that food can go bad, according to Carolyn Raab, PhD, a food and nutrition specialist and professor at Oregon State University. “As we age, the sense of smell declines, so seniors sometimes can’t tell as easily that a food is spoiled. That’s especially worrisome because food poisoning from spoiled food poses a particularly serious risk for seniors.”
Her advice: make sure to keep your kitchen clean, cook foods thoroughly, and refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible.
Myth: Once you hit 65, it’s really too late to start following a healthy lifestyle.
Fact: It’s never too late to make healthy changes in your diet or lifestyle. Even if you’ve already developed insulin resistance, you can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes by eating more whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables, and becoming more physically active.
Also, studies have shown that lifestyle changes after people have suffered a heart attack can reduce the risks of another heart attack. Exercise and a healthy diet have together been shown to reverse the accumulation of cholesterol-laden plaque in the arteries.