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Good nutrition is necessary for lifelong health

Note: A "serving" may be defined differently, whether it is the CACFP meal pattern serving, the Nutrition Facts label on commercial products or, as used in this article, those in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Good nutrition is essential for everyone. Americans are living longer, are healthier, and are more active than ever before. There are some nutritional challenges that present themselves as we age.

The way we eat may change as family and living situations change as we get older. Preparing balanced meals for one or two persons may seem less worthwhile. Problems associated with the physical difficulty of shopping, cooking, and chewing as well as decreased taste and smell may make eating less appealing. Many older Americans get into the habit of eating the same foods from fast food restaurants, out of cans or packages, or even skipping meals. The effect of these eating habits results in a high percentage of calories from sodium, cholesterol, fat and saturated fat while being deficient in other important nutrients. This unbalanced diet leads to the risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes as well as other problems such as anemia. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans remind us to eat a varied and balanced diet. Plan to eat three to five servings of vegetables daily. One half cup of cooked or one cup raw vegetables is a serving. If chewing or swallowing is a problem consult your dentist or doctor for an evaluation. If you continue to have difficulty with vegetables, consider steamed or baked squash or greens; mashed, baked or boiled white or sweet potatoes; slow simmered stews with plenty of vegetables; dishes containing tomato sauce or tomato or vegetable juice blends; finely chopped or shredded slaws; or creamed corn, turnips or spinach.

Adults need two to four servings of fruit per day to get enough vitamin A and C. A serving of fruit is equal to 3/4 cup juice, a small piece of fresh fruit, or 1/2 cup berries, melon, grapes or canned fruit. If canned or frozen is used, choose those packed in their own juice or in light syrup. More palatable versions of fruits can be obtained by thinly slicing or baking apples; using ripe bananas, peaches, nectarines or plums; using canned fruits or drinking fruit juices.

Two to three servings every day of dairy products are recommended. (Note: the CACFP meal pattern divides dairy products between the milk group and meat/meat alternate group; dairy products are in one food group under the Dietary Guidelines for Americans). This food group is an excellent source of calcium which helps to maintain strong bones. And milk doesn't always have to be in a glass. There is also cheese, cottage cheese and yogurt. Look for low fat versions in this group of foods as the fat grams can add up quickly. A cup of nonfat or one percent milk on your cereal, a cup of nonfat or low fat cottage cheese, and one cup of nonfat or low fat yogurt are excellent sources of calcium. Diets low in calcium can increase the risk of osteoporosis. This is a bone disease in which the bones become brittle, increasing the likelihood of falls and fractures. If lactose intolerance is a problem, lactase supplements or lactase products in the dairy section of the grocery store may offer an acceptable solution.

Lower fat choices should be considered in the meat group. Two to three ounces of lean meat, fish or poultry or 1/2 cup of dry cooked peas or beans served two to three times every day will provide the needed nutrients from this group. When selecting leaner cuts of meat, choose white meat or look for the words round or loin for lower fat choices.

One slice of bread, one tortilla or small low fat muffin, 1/2 cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta, or 1/2 to one cup of ready-to-eat cereal are single servings in the breads, cereals, rice and pasta group. Six to 11 servings per day are recommended. Don't let the numbers scare you. This number of servings can be easily obtained if you start the morning with a cup of oatmeal (two servings). For lunch, a sandwich with two pieces of bread will provide two more servings. If you have a cup of spaghetti or rice for supper, you would have two more servings for a total of six servings of the bread, cereal, rice and pasta group.

Many health agencies advocate increasing dietary fiber in the average American diet. Vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains are good sources of fiber. Fiber can reduce the risk of colon cancer and helps to avoid constipation and intestinal problems. Whole grain bread and cereal products and brown rice are good examples of dietary fiber. Whole grain, cracked or a stone ground grain provide high fiber. A sudden increase in high fiber products may produce some gastric discomfort. So it is best to increase the amount of fiber in your diet gradually.

Drinking an adequate amount of fluids should be a priority. Although aging may decrease the ability to feel thirsty, the need for fluids remains vital. Six to eight glasses of water, juice, soup, low fat milk and other nonalcoholic fluids with and between meals are important for keeping your body adequately hydrated. Water plays an important role in the intestinal tract and also reduces stress on kidney function, which tends to decline with age. The ability to handle alcohol can decrease with age and may have a toxic effect. If you drink at all, do so in moderation.

Go easy with the salt shaker. Eat less of the foods that are high in sodium such as smoked or processed meats like ham, bacon, hot dogs, luncheon meats, pickles, cheese, salty snack foods and soy sauce. Read the Nutrition Facts label for sodium content.

Sugar provides calories but not vitamins and minerals. Eating sweet foods in moderation is okay as long as you eat other nutrient-rich foods to meet your body's demand for balanced nutrition. Many foods high in sugar are also high in fat.

Many people are taking vitamin and mineral supplements as a harmless form of "health insurance." But too much of a good thing may bring a risk of toxicity. If you use supplements, choose those that do not exceed 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs). Be sure to tell health care providers about all supplements you take, including concentrations and amounts. Keep supplements out of the reach of children.

Eating well balanced meals becomes easier when regular activity is part of your day. Activity levels generally decrease as people get older but many times people don't adjust their diet to compensate for decreased activity. The risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes is dramatically increased with a weight gain. The best plan is to continue exercising and adjust your diet so that you maintain a healthy weight. Choose a type of exercise that is fun and that you'll enjoy. Dance, walk, swim, skip. If you don't like to do it, you probably won't. The secret to fitness is to start small, build gradually and maintain a regular schedule. Exercise not only helps strengthen bones and joints, but by burning calories it increases the amount of food that can be eaten without gaining weight. If you've been inactive for several years, you should check with your doctor before you begin. Remember that warm ups and cool downs are essential in your exercise program.

The best form of "health insurance" is a sensible, balanced eating plan and regular exercise. It is worth the effort to plan and prepare a balanced diet. Share meals with friends and family or attend group meal clubs. It will help you enjoy the best health you can have.


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