How Nutrition Changes As We Age
By Karen Hendricks
Photography by Casey Martin
Health and wellness in the golden years are more important today than ever before. That’s because Americans are approaching a shift in population. By 2030, all baby boomers will be 65 or older. And that means older adults will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. The ripple effect from this shift will be felt across many industries, including healthcare and senior living communities.
As more and more of us approach and enter senior status, what can we do to protect our health? Nutrition plays one of the most critical roles, according to area health experts. No matter your current age, the right mix of nutrients can ensure that you’re nourishing your body and flourishing well into your golden years.
Nutrients: A Balancing Act
A well-balanced diet is the key to nutritional health at any age, says Bree Grim, a clinical dietitian at WellSpan Gettysburg Hospital. Seniors are no exception. “As people age, it’s important to preserve and maintain their health with adequate vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, and incorporate exercise and activity to preserve bones and muscles,” she says.
Some of the most critical nutrients for seniors, Grim says, include protein, calcium, the wide variety of vitamins and fiber found in fruits and vegetables, and the carbohydrates, fiber, and vitamin B12 found in whole grains.
So, what is a well-balanced diet containing all these essential nutrients? The food pyramid has been replaced by the USDA’s MyPlate concept. Today’s healthy guidelines, for people of all ages, call for half of our plates to consist of fruits and vegetables, one quarter of our plates devoted to protein, and the remaining one quarter of our plates filled with grains. Dairy products play a supporting role; most people should aim for three servings a day. And the USDA recommends that half of our grains (bread, pasta, tortillas, oatmeal, and other cereal) hail from whole grain sources.
American culture moved away from whole grains—including wheat, quinoa, and farro—for many years, says Laura Miller, clinical nutrition manager at retirement community Cross Keys Village, The Brethren Home Community. But, she says, recent health trends are reintroducing these nutrient-packed grains. Seven, including farro, are classified as traditional ancient grains.
“Our diet tended to lean more toward refined foods like white bread, but now we want to focus on whole grains because they’re higher in fiber that can help lower cholesterol and help with heart health. They’re also a good source of protein,” says Miller.
From Superfoods to Spiralized Veggies
“Superfoods”—a popular buzzword today—also play an essential role in healthy eating. You might call them the super heroes of our diet. Examples include vitamin-packed citrus fruits, watermelon, salmon, nuts, squash, and tomatoes.
“Superfoods are seasonal foods, usually fruits or vegetables, that have proven health benefits and are good sources of certain nutrients,” Miller says. Every month, programs are held at Cross Keys Village highlighting a superfood with tastings, recipes, and education. February’s superfood was dark chocolate, and upcoming superfood programs include whole grains in March and herbs and spices in April.
Nearly 1,000 residents call Cross Keys Village home, including more than 700 in independent living apartments and cottages. The New Oxford community includes a café serving breakfast and lunch, as well as a fine dining option, available to residents and open to the public.
Spiralized vegetables are an extremely healthy and popular option among residents, says Krystal Hartzell, hospitality manager at Cross Keys Village. The most popular dinner menu item, she says, is a very healthy one—Shrimp and Butternut Squash Scampi, featuring spiralized butternut squash.
Learning About Nutrition
Education is key when it comes to nutrition. A wellness event called the Wellness Bowl, featuring healthy snacks, recipes, and nutrition information, is traditionally held on Super Bowl weekend at Cross Keys Village, Hartzell says. This year, black bean brownies were just one of the featured snacks.
Similarly, nutritional events are held regularly at senior living community SpiriTrust Lutheran, The Village at Gettysburg. A February event, featuring chefs in action, focused on root vegetables.
“March is National Nutrition Month, so every Monday we’ll be highlighting a different nutrient and giving residents tips on how to incorporate them into their diets. It begins March 4 with a program on healthy proteins,” says Crystal Hull, SpiriTrust Lutheran’s communications director.
Chambersburg’s Menno Haven, a nonprofit continuing care retirement community, also offers educational opportunities for residents. In conjunction with American Heart Month in February, the community hosted a cooking demonstration featuring heart-healthy recipes, remarks by a cardiologist, and tastings including chocolate chip oatmeal cookies with chia seeds, says Jeremy Fry, general manager of culinary services.
New Approaches to Nutrition
All the food at Menno Haven is prepared in house and from scratch, utilizing a new culinary center, Fry says. The community is home to 1,300 residents, including 850 in independent living, and operates three casual café restaurants and a full-service fine dining restaurant, with a marketplace in the works.
“When it comes to nutrition with seniors, it helps to do more in house,” says Fry. “At our new culinary center, we’re doing a lot of sous vide (under vacuum) cooking, which allows for slow cooking, tenderizing, cooking under a vacuum in a water bath.”
These techniques are used in fine dining restaurants on a smaller scale, but they haven’t hit mainstream commercial establishments or many retirement communities yet, he says.
“For example, we’re making our own turkey deli breast,” says Fry. “We can season it, vacuum it, set the cooking temperature so it’s not overcooking or drying out. That’s something that helps the older population—we can keep it healthy.”
Beginning in March, Menno Haven is also launching an innovative-boxed chef program.
“A lot of seniors still have the passion to cook, but it can be hard for them to get out and get all the ingredients,” says Fry. “We’ll deliver a box to their apartment or villa, we’ll provide all the ingredients, nutritional information, and recipes for quick 30-minute meals.”
Handle with Care
Diets often need to be tailored to special medical conditions, and in those cases Grim says it’s critical that seniors abide by their doctors’ recommendations. “There is a wide range of medical issues typically seen in seniors, from dementia, diabetes, and heart failure,” she says. “Nutrition plays an important role and needs to be individualized.”
Other factors can come into play when it comes to seniors’ dining habits. Dental issues can make chewing difficult, and physiological changes can affect the way seniors taste and smell their food.
The loss of a spouse can be another reason. “From a social standpoint, if one spouse passes away, it can be hard for the other spouse to get back on track with cooking due to the stress,” says Grim.
Hartzell says sometimes it’s difficult for seniors to change their long-established eating habits. That’s why Cross Keys Village’s menus balance classic comfort foods with newer, often healthier, options.
“We try to please all of our residents, serving favorite comfort foods like meatloaf and pork and sauerkraut. It’s a fine balance; when we serve those things, we can also serve things that are on the healthier side,” says Hartzell.
There’s often a misconception that new or healthy foods aren’t going to taste good.
“At the restaurant or café, they’ll say, ‘The food is so wonderful—I can’t pronounce it, but it’s delicious,’ usually referring to quinoa or freekeh [one of the seven ancient grains]. With other residents, if they can’t pronounce it, they don’t want to eat it. But we make a believer out of many residents—even ones that are set in their ways,” Hartzell says. “Having them try new things and liking them … it’s so rewarding.”
*Disclaimer: Be sure to speak to your doctor before starting a new diet or nutrition plan.
Eating the Essentials
Top Nutrients for Senior Health
Found in: Eggs, nut butters such as peanut butter, quinoa, and dairy products such as yogurt and milk
Why it’s essential: “Protein is going to help with muscle function, which is important with aging in general, and it can help with wound healing as well,” says Bree Grim, a clinical dietitian at WellSpan Gettysburg Hospital.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits: Apples, oranges, bananas, and much more
Vegetables: Spinach, carrots, beans, and many more
Why they’re essential: “Fruits and vegetables provide a wide variety of vitamins, plus fiber,” Grim says.
Wheat, oats, rice, farro, and quinoa
Why they’re essential: “Whole grains provide carbs and fiber, and they’re better than white, refined grains because they provide more nutrients,” Grim says.
Found in: Milk and other dairy products
Why they’re essential: “Particularly in the older population, calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health,” says Grim, “to decrease the risk factors of osteoporosis.”
Turn Up the Heat for Delicious Veggies
Roasting is one of the most popular, healthy, and easy ways to prepare vegetables, says Jeremy Fry, general manager of culinary services at Menno Haven.
“Roasting vegetables helps control any additional fat—you just need to coat them with a little oil. When roasting, you get caramelization from the [vegetables’] natural sugar, whether it’s carrots, onions, etc. So, you still get great flavor without added fat,” says Fry.
Try roasting a medley of your favorite vegetables on an olive oil-coated pan: potatoes (white or sweet), carrots, onions, peppers, broccoli, squash, and more.