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What you eat becomes more critical with age

Submitted photo River Falls Medical Clinic and Hospital dietician Debra Sanders demonstrates a blood-sugar test to some visiting youngsters who were raising money for the fight against diabetes.

With age people are often less active and prone to gain weight while losing muscle mass. Their immune systems weaken, leaving them more susceptible to disease and illness.

"Having a balance of nutrients is vital," says River Falls Medical Clinic dietician Debra Sanders. "Sometimes you find that seniors fix meals with just one food group -- like macaroni and cheese, a common one.

"The reason could be that they don't feel like cooking anymore, especially for one person, or that they don't get out as much to buy groceries, or even that they don't buy enough fruits like apples, oranges and bananas, or vegetables, because they worry about wasting them or having them spoil."

Sanders says to buy small amounts, smaller bags of fruits and vegetables, because they have essential ingredients of the recommended "five food-group meal plan" that includes whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein.

For those who skimp for whatever reason on the five-food groupings, Sanders said taking a multivitamin can help make up the difference.

Another way to keep up with the daily recommendations for fruits and vegetables, she says, especially in winter, is to buy frozen.

"That's just as nutritious as fresh," Sanders said. "And in winter, the produce comes from around the world, so by the time you get it in the supermarket, it's not so fresh."

On the other hand, Sanders said the elderly, probably from old habits, are still more apt to buy canned food.

She says to limit those purchases because canned food isn't fresh and is "higher in sodium."

Sanders said elderly people also complain more of chronic constipation.

One way to alleviate that condition is by eating more whole-grain foods -- whole wheat bread instead of white, brown rice instead of white.

"The whole grains are higher in fiber to make you go," Sanders said. "The same is true for fruits and vegetables because of their high-fiber content."

Foods with fiber also play a role in reducing the risk of colon cancer and in reducing cholesterol. The latter, if not checked, can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Another way to ease constipation and improve health is hydration.

"Drinking adequate water is important, and yet the sense of thirst, like the sense of taste, diminishes with age," Sanders said. "Therefore, you have to remain mindful to stay hydrated." Sanders said if you are adequately hydrated, your urine should be odorless and almost clear.

"If it's dark and strong (smelling), you're probably dehydrated," she said.

Besides water, Sanders urged seniors to drink low-fat milk. Juices aren't as good because they're high in calories. Coffee and tea provide some fluids, but if overdone can also dehydrate.

With diminished sense of taste, and also smell, many seniors lose appetite. They may dose servings with salt to bring out taste. Too much salt is bad, so Sanders said to try an herbal blend of seasoning instead.

"Since you can't rely on hunger urges as much, your brain needs to take over the feeding routine," Sanders says. "You have to make a conscious effort to eat a well-balanced daily diet to maintain your health and also keep up your energy level."

For those who still savor their food, Sanders cautioned: "Smaller portions are better. You don't have to eat a big steak like before. Cut a chicken breast in half and use it over two meals."

For those who don't get around as well, who don't drive, Sanders said more and more supermarkets deliver groceries.

Getting an annual physical with your doctor is also important.

"The lab work's blood test will show if a (senior) has deficiencies in, say, calcium or Vitamin D," Sanders said, adding that such deficiencies are common with older people.

For seniors who like to dine out often, Sanders urges them to make health-conscious menu picks.

"If you can, substitute an extra side order of salad or a vegetable for the French fries," she said. "Try grilled chicken instead of fried, take a small baked potato but don't load it up with salt and butter, take Egg Beaters instead of regular eggs."

Calorie intake should drop for seniors who are usually retired and less active.

"So you don't need to eat as much, but the eating choices you make become more important," Sanders said. "Keep in mind the importance of nutritional balance in your diet."

Sanders said some seniors might consider nutritional beverages like Boost and Ensure. Originally offered in hospitals, these drinks are now found in grocery stores. They're laden with vital minerals, vitamins and proteins.

Said Sanders: "For those not eating right, who have a poor appetite or are losing weight, these drinks can be a helpful source of nutrients."