Every day I visit my mom in a nursing home. Most times I'm able to focus on her kind smile and warm welcome, while tuning out the unpleasant sounds and scenes around us. But there are other days, especially at mealtime, when the reality of being old and helpless feels overwhelming to me. The inability to cut food, chew properly, address preferences and decide which foods are best are difficult to address when dealing with a health-related facility – but what's even harder to believe is that many seniors living on their own are facing challenging food issues. Too many are either overweight due to inappropriate choices and inactivity or, sadly, they are starving.
New research from The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger found that more than 10 percent of seniors are hungry, and the incidence of senior starvation is on the rise. Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama rank the highest numbers of hungry seniors, while Virginia, Minnesota and North Dakota have the lowest rates.
If you're over 55 (yes, hard to believe that's a senior), or if you know a senior who makes any of the following statements, here's some assistance:
"I don't feel like cooking." The thought of cooking is daunting to some seniors, especially those who live alone and may be frightened by turning on a flame. Try to buy healthy food that is convenient, instead of "convenience foods," which are usually highly processed and high in sodium, fat and sugar. Try these quick powerhouse meals without the fuss:
• Yogurt, fat-reduced cheese and skim milk are all excellent sources of dairy that are easy to grab without much preparation. Dairy often contains probiotics, which will help keep your gut happy, too.
• Rinse canned beans and serve over easy-to-prepare whole grains like brown rice, along with a heated frozen vegetable. This complete protein vegetarian meal is also high in fiber, which will keep you feeling full.
• Heat-and-serve soups are also a great option for an easy lunch or dinner. Just be sure to read the label to find the exact serving size and be sure to keep sodium levels in check.
[Read: How to Cook for One.]
"My stomach aches." Constipation is a common complaint among older adults. Fueling your body with these foods will benefit you nutritionally and keep you on the move:
• Fruits and vegetables should provide the bulk of our fiber intake, so be sure to include these nutritional superstars in your diet. Apples, raspberries, strawberries, sweet potatoes, broccoli and artichokes will keep things flowing smoothly.
• Almonds provide healthy fat and protein, along with 2.4 grams of fiber per quarter cup.
• Beans can pack up to 19 grams of fiber per half a cup. Try adding this plant protein-rich, economical, easy-to-store food to your diet a few times per week.
• Whole grains like quinoa, bulgar and brown rice should be eaten regularly for regularity.
"I can't drink a lot because I'm afraid I won't make it to the bathroom on time." Drinking a sufficient amount of fluids is essential, especially if you're on medication. Water nourishes your skin (and prevent wrinkles!) and helps alleviate constipation. Think outside the bottle – you don't have to sip plain water all day. Try adding a squeeze of lemon or lime or a sprig of mint to jazz up your sparkling water, and also remember that tea, coffee and 100 percent fruit juice contribute to your daily recommended fluid intake. Additionally, water-rich fruits and vegetables help keep you healthfully hydrated. Always check with your health care provider to be sure that fluid intake doesn't need to be restricted.
"My teeth hurt too much for me to chew." It's common to have trouble chewing as we age. Soft foods can be just as nutritious, so don't be fooled by people who tell you food is best when it's raw. Try oatmeal with almond butter in the morning, low sodium chicken vegetable soup for lunch, and beans and rice for dinner with cooked veggies. Try my sweet potato smoothie, packed with essential vitamins and minerals, and no chewing required! Also, don't forget to see your dentist at least once a year!
[Read: Stop the Excuses! Go to the Dentist.]
"I'm afraid to eat because I have diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure." A myriad of medical ailments can make choosing the best foods tricky, but eating well plays a critical role in keeping your mind sharp and body in good shape. These foods can help fight common senior illnesses:
• Oatmeal with cottage cheese and berries is an award-winning combination for your heart and cholesterol. As a bonus, this combo can prevent a spike in your blood sugar.
• Fatty fish (especially salmon) provides a heart-healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower "bad" cholesterol.
Your parents' health concerns don't have to be your own. Eat well to prevent chronic illnesses that run in your family, plus check out my tips to avoid diabetes; it doesn't have to be your destiny.
"Nothing tastes good anymore, so I don't want to eat." A reduced sense of taste as we age is common, but it's an easy obstacle to overcome. Adding heat to your food instantly heightens your taste buds. Even if you never liked spicy food in the past, you may be able to tolerate more kick in your favorite dish. Try Mexican, Thai and Indian cuisines, which naturally pack a heated punch.
Remember that it's never too late to make positive changes. Although you may feel like your eating habits are established, that doesn't mean they're etched in stone. Even a subtle change, like switching from that white bagel to whole-grain toast in the morning, could slash 300 calories from your daily diet. Be sure to include color, variety and freshness to ensure well-balanced nutrition!
If you or someone you know could be at risk of facing hunger, locate the food bank nearest you at feedingamerica.org.
Hungry for more? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, concerns and feedback.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.