Diet & Nutrition Tips for Seniors and Their Caregivers

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This content is supported by an unrestricted educational grant from Abbott.

“Have a complete, balanced, healthy diet or paint your plate with the colours of the rainbow.” We hear and see these messages, often in articles, at the grocery store, among friends and family, and from health care professionals. If you are a parent, we know you lead very busy lives. While juggling a job and family life, you may also be caring for the needs of a senior loved one. While ensuring your loved ones get what they need to stay strong and healthy over time, we often sacrifice our own health needs.  While focusing on purchasing the right foods for your elders, it’s equally important that you’re meeting your own nutritional needs. In this article, we will walk you through diet and nutrition tips for seniors such as your parents, and you as their caregivers.

First things first, what does nutritional balance mean?

Simply put, nutritional balance is having the right amount of protein, energy, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals each and every day to help you meet your dietary needs.

To achieve this, Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating vegetables and fruits, whole-grain foods, and protein foods to maintain your health.

They suggest eating the following on a regular basis:

  • Whole-grain foods such as:
    • Quinoa
    • Wild rice
    • Whole grain pasta
  • Vegetables and fruits such as:
    • Apples
    • Carrots
    • Broccoli
  • Protein foods such as:
    • Legumes
    • Lean Meats
    • Lower Fat Yogurt
Canadas food guide plate

Caring for Seniors

A balanced and healthy diet is very important for elders as they age. You may or may not already know, but healthy eating can help your loved ones:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Promote and protect health and well-being
  • Provide essential energy and nutrients to maintain health
  • Prevent, lower the risk or slow the progression of chronic illnesses such as
    • Heart disease
    • Type 2 diabetes
  • Prevent muscle and bone loss to reduce the risk of falling or breaking bones

You may have noticed your parents, on occasion or with growing regularity, eat less, or are becoming uninterested in food. As we age, our nutritional needs change, and so do our appetites. With aging, the body may need fewer calories, but it does require just as high or higher levels of certain nutrients such as vitamins or minerals.

Essential vitamins and minerals that Dietitians of Canada recommends as you age include:

  • Vitamin B6: You and your elders need more of this after the age of 50, as they are essential for a healthy immune system. Sources include potatoes, beans, meat, chicken and fish.
  • Vitamin B12: Up to 30% of adults over age 50 may have trouble absorbing vitamin B12. This vitamin is found in meat, chicken, fish and milk products.
  • Vitamin D: Health Canada says that in addition to eating vitamin D rich foods, everyone over age 50 should take a supplement with 500 IU of vitamin D daily.
  • Calcium: Daily calcium needs increase to 1200 mg at age 50 for both women and men to keep those bones strong and healthy.
  • Iron: Good sources of iron include poultry, beans, leafy greens and fortified breakfast cereals. 

Canada’s Food Guide recommends seniors eat a wide range of healthy foods to get enough of those nutrients. Nutrient-dense foods include:

  • Vegetables and fruit
  • Beans and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Lean protein

TIP: Your loved ones will receive the same health benefits from frozen and canned options, which can be just as healthy and easier to prepare (also generally less expensive!). Just keep in mind, you should choose canned fruit packed in water or juice rather than syrup, and canned vegetables with little or no salt (sodium).

Let’s jump into some diet and nutrition tips for seniors that would also apply to you as their caregivers.

Protein

Protein is important for balanced and complete nutrition, as it helps build, maintain and repair our bodies. It keeps our muscles strong and our hair, nails and skin healthy. Protein intake is especially important as we age, when faced with a medical condition or when physically active. To meet these increased needs and help prevent muscle loss, adults (19 years and older) should be getting 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of their body weight. For example, if you weigh 150lbs (69kg), then you would need about 55g of protein per day.

If your elderly loved one can reach their protein goal, try to incorporate one good source of protein at every meal.  Purchase products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes such as beans, peas and lentils, tofu, nuts and seeds which are all excellent sources of protein, iron, and B vitamins.

TIP: For healthy protein snacks, purchase some peanut or almond butter for them to add to toast, crackers or apple slices, or nuts and seeds that can be put on top of yogurt and salads!

If you notice your loved one struggling with a loss of appetite, show difficulty chewing, or have trouble preparing balanced meals – they may benefit from having nutritional drinks on hand such as Ensure®. These drinks are formulated to help meet general nutrition goals such as increased calories and protein, and getting essential vitamins and minerals in their diet that we talked about previously.

If they still can’t get enough protein, talk to a dietitian for more tips about what’s right for them.  

Fibre

We’ve talked about the many benefits of fibre before. Not only does it keep us regular, but can also help lower blood cholesterol levels, manage blood sugar levels and help prevent high blood pressure. Eating fibre-full meals can help your loved ones stay fuller for longer and feel more satisfied!  According to Dietitians of Canada, women ages 51 and over should be consuming 21 grams of fibre each day, and men 51 and over should be consuming 30 grams.

Vegetables and fruit, beans, lentils and chickpeas, whole grains such as oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat and even popcorn are all great fibre foods. Choose grain products that are high in fibre, including breads, pasta, and tortillas.

TIP: Look for “whole” grains to be the first ingredient on the ingredient label. “Enriched wheat flour” “all-purpose flour” “unbleached flour” are all refined white flours and have much less fibre than whole grains.

Fats

Fats give us energy and help with nutrient absorption, mood and brain function.

Rather than cutting out fats for those who are aging, focus on healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids. They can help lower triglycerides, reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Some foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include oily or fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, nuts and seeds such as walnuts, chia seeds, and ground flaxseeds, avocados, and foods fortified with omega 3, such as eggs, yogurt and soy beverages.

TIP: Research shows that margarine may be worse for your heart than butter because some brands contain large amounts of trans fats. The best choice is healthy liquid oil for cooking and baking, such as olive and canola. If you do buy soft-tubs of margarine for your elders, ensure that it is labelled “non-hydrogenated.” 1

Make sure you take good care of yourself

Being a caregiver for your elderly loved ones can be stressful. You may find yourself grabbing food on the go or skipping meals. YOU may not be getting the nutrients you need on a daily basis. While grabbing food on the go may make your life a little easier, it likely isn’t giving you all the benefits you need. So while we have just highlighted diet and nutrition tips for seniors, to achieve a balanced diet as their caregivers, the same rules apply to you.

As we previously stated, Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating vegetables and fruits, whole-grain foods, and protein foods to maintain your health. See here for more healthy eating tips.

If you are experiencing caregiver stress, here are some ways to help while keeping up with your nutritional needs.

  • Meal planning and prep: having nutritious leftovers in the fridge rather than cooking from scratch is a great time-saver! Examples include hard-boiled eggs, big batches of soup or stew, or tuna salad.
  • Make smoothies or have nutritional drinks on hand: make and freeze individual cups of smoothies or have a nutritional drink such as Ensure® to help fill nutrition gaps. Consider keeping a bottle on hand for those busy, hectic days.
  • Keep nutrient-dense snacks on hand such as chickpeas, whole-wheat crackers, blueberries, and nuts and seeds. 

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Make a list of things you may need help with, and let your helper choose what they would like to do. Have them pick up groceries one day or occasionally cook to give you a break. Home delivered meal services or grocery pick up is also a great option to order the foods you need, while saving you time. We hope these diet and nutrition tips for seniors and you as their caregivers can ensure you both stay healthy and energized!


References:

  1. Seniors BC. Healthy Eating Seniors Book. Retrieved From:https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/people/seniors/health-safety/pdf/healthy-eating-seniorsbook.pdf