The Importance Of Good Nutrition & Hydration For The Elderly

In support of National Nutrition Month in March, and Nutrition and Hydration Week between March 15th and March 21st, we have created this guide on how to maintain good nutrition and hydration as we age. 

The effective management of food intake and nutrition are both key to good health as we get older. Having a healthy diet and eating the right foods can help your body cope more successfully with an ongoing illness or other healthcare problems. 

In addition, understanding good nutrition and paying attention to what you eat can help you maintain or improve your health. In the following article, we will discuss the importance of good nutrition and hydration, discuss the causes of malnutrition and give advice on how to maintain a healthy diet as you get older.

What Is Good Nutrition?

Nutrition has a big impact on our health, regardless of our age. Food and nutrition are how we get energy and fuel into our bodies. We need to replace nutrients in our bodies with a new supply each day. Nutrition includes fats, proteins and carbohydrates. In addition, water is an important component of good nutrition. Maintaining key vitamins and minerals are also important to maintaining good health, especially for those over 50. 

A healthy diet should include a lot of natural foods and should consist of plenty of fruits and vegetables. Whole grains, such as whole-grain bread and brown rice, should also play a part in your diet. Protein should come from lean meats and poultry and dairy products should be low fat. 

Good nutrition also involves avoiding certain kinds of foods, such as salt (sodium) which can lead to high blood pressure. Watching your cholesterol and fat intake is also important for good nutrition.

Why Is Good Nutrition Important?

Most people know good nutrition and physical activity can help maintain a healthy body weight. But the benefits of good nutrition go beyond weight loss. The right food choices and a balanced diet provides the body with the nutrients and energy it needs to function properly and can prevent malnutrition.

In addition, good nutrition can lessen our risk of developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis and can also help us stave off colds and infections. Good nutrition can help to reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

Healthy eating habits can also increase your energy levels, improve your wellness & well-being and help you recover from illness or injury.

A Well Balanced Diet

The UK government’s recommendations for a balanced diet are depicted in the Eatwell Guide. The Eatwell Guide shows how much of what you eat should come from each food group. This includes everything you eat and drink during the day. 

So, try to:

  • Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. To get the full benefit of the natural fibre in fruits, you should eat the whole fruit, not just the juice. You should also eat a variety of vegetables every day. 

  • Eat plenty of whole grains – At least half of the carbohydrates you eat should come from whole grains, such as cereals, whole grain bread and whole wheat pasta.

  • Have some dairy or dairy alternatives, such as soy drinks, and choose low fat and lower sugar options. These provide calcium and vitamin D to help keep your bones strong. 

  • Choose lean meats as lean cuts of meat and poultry have less fat and fewer calories but are still good sources of protein.

  • Eat other sources of protein. Try replacing meats and poultry with fish, eggs, beans, or tofu and eat 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily.

  • If consuming foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar have these less often and in small amounts.

  • Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts.

  • Drink 6 to 8 cups/glasses of water a day.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are nutrients that people need in relatively large quantities. These include:

Carbohydrates – Fiber, Starch & Sugar are all types of carbohydrates. The body breaks these down in exchange for energy. Sugars are broken down quickly for rapid energy but can cause spikes in blood sugar, or glucose, levels that increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Fibre and starch are complex carbohydrates that take longer to break down and leave you feeling fuller for longer.

Proteins – Proteins consist of amino acids, which are essential organic compounds that occur naturally. Most plant-based foods do not contain complete protein, so a person who follows a vegan diet needs to eat a range of foods throughout the day that provides the essential amino acids.

Fats – Fats are essential for:

  • Lubricating joints.

  • Helping organs produce hormones.

  • Enabling the body to absorb certain vitamins.

  • Reducing inflammation.

  • Preserving brain health.

Too much fat can lead to obesity, high cholesterol, liver disease, and other health problems. However, the type of fat a person eats makes a difference. Unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, are more healthful than saturated fats, which tend to come from animals.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are essential in small amounts and include vitamins and minerals. In most cases, a varied and balanced diet will provide the minerals a person needs. These include:

Potassium – Potassium is an electrolyte that enables kidney, heart and muscle function. Too little Potassium can cause high blood pressure. Avocados, bananas, beans & lentils are all good sources of Potassium. 

Sodium – Sodium is an electrolyte that maintains nerve & muscle function. Table salt is made of sodium & chloride. However, experts urge you not to add table salt to their diet as sodium occurs naturally in most foods. 

Calcium – The body uses calcium to form bones and teeth and to support the nervous system and improve cardiovascular health. Not getting enough calcium can cause your bones and teeth to weaken. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, tofu and green, leafy vegetables. 

Phosphorus – Phosphorus is present in all body cells and contributes to bone and teeth health. Good sources of phosphorus include dairy products, salmon, lentils, and cashews.

Magnesium – Magnesium helps to regulate blood pressure and contributes to muscle and nerve function. Too little magnesium can cause nausea, sleep conditions and other symptoms. Beans, nuts and spinach are all good sources of magnesium. 

Zinc – Zinc plays a role in the immune system and the creation of proteins. Too little can lead to skin sores and diarrhoea. Dietary sources of Zinc include beef, fortified breakfast cereals and baked beans. 

Iron – Iron is essential for the creation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen across the body. Too little iron can cause digestive issues and anaemia. Sources of iron include fortified cereals, spinach, lentils and tofu. 

Manganese – The body uses manganese to produce energy and to support the immune system. Brown rice, chickpeas and spinach are all sources of manganese. 

Copper – The body uses copper to produce energy and create connective tissues and blood vessels. Not getting enough copper in your diet can cause tiredness and high cholesterol. Good sources of copper include potatoes, mushrooms and sesame and sunflower seeds. 

Selenium – Selenium plays a crucial role in reproductive and thyroid health and is also an antioxidant that can prevent cell damage. Too little selenium can cause heart disease, infertility in men and arthritis. Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium. Other sources include spinach, oatmeal and tuna.

Vitamins

People need small amounts of various vitamins. Some of these, such as vitamin C, are also antioxidants. This means they help protect cells from damage by removing toxic molecules, known as free radicals, from the body.

Vitamins can be either water-soluble, such as vitamin B and vitamin C, or fat-soluble, like vitamin D, A, E and vitamin K. People need to consume water-soluble vitamins regularly because the body removes them more quickly, and it doesn’t store them easily.

The body absorbs fat-soluble vitamins through the intestines with the help of fats (lipids). The body can store them and does not remove them quickly. People who follow a low-fat diet may not be able to absorb enough of these vitamins, which can lead to problems. Vitamin D can also be absorbed from sunlight exposure.

How To Fix 5 Common Eating Problems

As you age, you may lose interest in eating and cooking. Small changes can help you overcome some of the challenges to eating well.

  1. Food no longer tastes good – Try new recipes or adding different herbs and spices. Some medicines can affect your appetite or sense of taste so talk to your doctor or carer if you are worried.

  2. Chewing difficulty – Try softer foods like cooked vegetables, beans, eggs, applesauce, and canned fruit. If eating 3 main meals a day seems overwhelming, try 6-8 smaller, more frequent meals

  3. Poor digestion – Talk to your doctor or a registered dietician to figure out which foods to avoid while still maintaining a balanced diet. Visit the GP to rule out any underlying illnesses or for further guidance. 

  4. Eating alone – Try dining out with family, friends, or neighbours. See if your local senior centre hosts group meals so that you can eat together.

  5. Difficulty shopping or cooking – Check with your local senior centre for programs that can help you with shopping or preparing meals. It may be time to consider hiring some additional support, such as a live-in carer or nurse if shopping or cooking has become too difficult and it is affecting your health.

Signs And Symptoms Of Malnourishment

  • Weight loss/weight gain

  • Muscle weakness

  • Lethargy/tiredness

  • Increased number of falls

  • Constipation

  • Poor skin health/pressure sores

  • Depression

  • Changes in behaviour/cognitive problems/memory loss

  • Increased infections

Possible Causes Of Malnourishment

  • Forgetting to eat, potentially caused by dementia

  • Certain medications can cause reduced appetite

  • Sore mouth or poorly fitting dentures

  • Physical issues such as chewing and swallowing problems caused by a stroke or medical condition

  • Eating small amounts or slowly, feeling embarrassed about making a mess, being unable to lift drinks or visual impairment can also be contributing factors

  • Depression

Hydration

The adult human body is up to 60% water, and it needs water for many processes. It is recommended that you consume 2 litres, or 8 glasses, of water each day. You can also gain hydration from dietary sources, such as fruits and vegetables.

Your individual requirements will also depend on your body size and age, as well as environmental factors, activity levels, health status, and so on.

Why Is Good Hydration Important?

Good hydration is critical for maintaining bodily functions, including the heart, brain and muscles.  Maintaining healthy fluid levels lowers the risk of contracting a urinary tract infection, which can be dangerous for the elderly. 

The elderly can be more susceptible to dehydration if they struggle to recognise when they are thirsty or are unable to communicate their needs, so it is important to keep a close eye on them and know the signs of dehydration.

Signs And Symptoms Of Dehydration:

  • Thirst/dry mouth

  • Dark concentrated urine

  • Urine passed infrequently in small amounts (less than 3 or 4 times a day)

  • Headache

  • Muscle cramps

  • Drop in blood pressure – dizziness, unbalanced

  • Change in mood or mobility

  • Confusion

  • Constipation

  • UTIs

How To Stay Hydrated

It is recommended that adults drink 6-8 glasses of fluid per day (1.5 to 2 litres). Water is the best at rehydrating the body, however, you can supplement it with other liquids such as tea, juice or milk as needed in order to meet fluid requirements. 

As they get older, some people may be tempted to drink fewer fluids if they fear incontinence or have difficulty getting to a toilet. However, drinking fewer fluids can actually exacerbate their condition, since drinking less can result in urine that’s more concentrated and more irritating to the bladder. 

If you are providing care for an elderly relative or friend, it is important that you promote hydration by reminding and encouraging them to drink. It is a good idea to have a glass of water within easy reach of the individual and replenish their drink regularly.

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