Healthy Eating for Seniors

Spring 2008 CSANews Issue 66  |  Posted date : May 24, 2008.Back to list

At a recent Winter Information meeting, a CSA member asked me what the latest advice was regarding healthy eating for seniors, claiming that he had become cynical and tired of the changing advice on "what's good for you and what isn't."  Many of us share the same concerns. New research reported yearly sometimes changes the types of foods that are considered healthy and the ones that may be harmful to your health. I therefore searched the latest reputable literature and report the prevalent thoughts on what constitutes a healthy diet and what vitamin and mineral supplements are currently recommended for our age group.

We have all been familiar since childhood with Canada's Food Guide published by Health Canada. As new research becomes available, the guide is amended from time to time, and most of us are only generally familiar with its advice. As younger individuals, we rarely gave a lot of thought to nutrition and the recommended intake of carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamin and mineral requirements. We ate what was served to us in most cases and when outside of our homes, we usually overate at fast-food outlets or chain restaurants. We spent little time considering healthy eating and many of us have paid the price over the years by gaining too much weight and, in many cases, enduring some of the numerous complications of obesity.

Now in our senior years, the importance of following a healthy diet becomes extremely critical. These are just a few important principles of which we need to be reminded:
  • Calories
  • Salt content
  • Fat content
  • Beneficial food types
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements

The growing incidence of obesity is affecting all ages, from children to seniors. Approximately one-third of adults in Canada are either overweight or obese. As we age, we are often not as physically active and our diminishing muscle mass results in fewer calories needed. If we ignore these facts and continue to eat the wrong foods and high-calorie foods in the same quantities as when we were younger, we gain weight. Once we are overweight, the challenge to reduce one's weight is more difficult.

Why is weight control especially important as we age? We now know that a multitude of conditions are more likely to result from being overweight. These include hypertension, high cholesterol levels, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease and certain cancers, including breast, endometrial, prostate and colon cancer.

Furthermore, research from Queen's University and other centres has demonstrated a close link between increased abdominal fat in men and higher risk of mortality. Men whose accumulation of increased fat was stored in the abdomen were in a more serious condition than men whose weight gain was more evenly distributed. In other words, those who have a significant "beer belly" are at greater risk for disease, especially coronary artery disease.

The research also supports the fact that the best way to lose the waist inches is by reducing calories, as well as a regular program of physical activity.

Salt Content

Those who have high blood pressure are familiar with the lectures that they receive about salt. There is no doubt that limiting salt in the diet plays a significant role in the overall management of hypertension. In addition to weight management, exercise and salt restriction are the measures that individuals can take to help keep their blood pressure within a normal range. Most will need medication as well, but the things which you do yourself are just as important. We all need salt in our diet, especially because of the addition of small amounts of iodine, which prevents goiter. However, many of the foods that we eat contain salt, therefore, adding table salt is unnecessary for good nutrition. In fact, beware of many of the "prepared foods" that you buy. Many are laced with salt, such as TV dinners, soups, canned vegetables and snacks. Be sure to read your food labels when shopping. Sea salt has slightly less sodium chloride but, if you're looking for a substitute, there are such products. Ask your pharmacist. Recent research has demonstrated an improvement in heart health with the restriction of salt, even in those without hypertension.

Fat Content

With the prevalence of heart disease in our age group, as well as the challenge which we face in maintaining normal weight, our dietary consumption of fats should be limited. It is well-known that the consumption of saturated (and trans) fat tends to raise the bad cholesterol (LDL). Accordingly, we should be limiting our intake of fatty meats, cream, butter, cheese and many sweets. Instead, we should replace them with lean meats such as skinless poultry, seafood, low-fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables and unsaturated fats as found in certain oils. Replace butter with non-hydrogenated tub margarine. Remember that certain fish, especially salmon, contains omega-3 fatty acids which may lower your risk of heart disease.

Although weight control and these healthy dietary measures will help lower our bad cholesterol, most who have had high cholesterol levels will still have to resort to taking one of the "statin" drugs (e.g. Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor) to maintain normal levels. Although other drugs are on the market, they are not as effective as the statin drugs.
Beneficial Foods

Having discussed some dietary precautions for seniors, now let's review what's good for you. The main food groups are:
  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • breads and cereals
  • milk and cheese
  • meat, poultry and fish
Fruits and Vegetables

These are low in fat and none contain cholesterol. They are rich in vitamins and minerals, dietary fibre and some provide protein. Vegetables are often subdivided into deep-yellow and dark-green and each is necessary in our diet. Beans, peas, soybeans and nuts are worthwhile sources of magnesium. Nuts are rich in polyunsaturated fat and lower cholesterol, but are often salt-coated.

Fruits are low in calories and loaded with healthy nutrients. A distinct advantage for snowbirds is the fact that when vacationing in the sunbelt states in the winter, these fresh fruits and vegetables are in ample supply, allowing for fresh produce in the winter as well as at home in Canada in the summer.

Breads and Cereals

Foods in this group provide us with starch, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, magnesium, iron, fibre and protein. Bread, bagels, pasta, cereal, rice and flatbreads are such foods and should comprise a part of our daily diet.

Milk and Cheese

Milk and most milk products including cheese are calcium-rich foods. They also contain riboflavin, protein and vitamins A, B6 and B12. However, as mentioned, they also contain saturated fat which can increase cholesterol levels. Drink skim milk or 1% and select cheeses which are lower in fat.

Meat, Poultry and Fish

Although red meats are high in protein and a good source of zinc and vitamin B12, they also contain saturated fat. Chose lean cuts and vary your diet with poultry and at least two servings per week of fish, especially salmon.

The remaining elements of our diet include beverages, sweets and alcohol. There is much research into the merits of tea, but very little substantiated evidence that it is beneficial in preventing disease. Nevertheless, as well as consuming adequate levels of water each day, especially in warm weather, tea is often a very desirable substitute and low in calories. Coffee is another safe beverage, in moderation. Keep it limited late in the day, because it can cause insomnia in some. It may be beneficial in reducing the risk of Parkinson's disease and gallstones, but there are still no proven cautions for our age group.

Sweets represent empty calories and should be very limited. Alcohol has been attributed to many conditions, but these are usually related to excessive consumption. Numerous studies now support the notion that alcohol in moderation is relatively safe. Obviously, the caloric content of both alcohol and mixers should be watched carefully. A recent study has shown that daily moderate alcohol consumption along with regular exercise can be more "heart healthy" than exercise alone. Moderation means two drinks or fewer per day for men and one drink or fewer per day for women.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

If you're in average health for your age and if your diet is varied and healthy, there are not a lot of supplements needed. Because the foods that we eat are either naturally present or fortified with vitamins and minerals (such as milk), there are only a few supplements most often recommended. There are many exceptions, including a vegan diet, certain debilitating diseases and the frail and elderly, whose diets may be restricted. Always discuss your needs with your physician, but here are the daily supplemental doses commonly suggested:
  • Vitamin C - 1,000 mg.
  • Calcium - 1,000 mg for men and 1,500 mg. for in women
  • Vitamin D - 1,000 IU
  • Magnesium - 350 mg.
Recently, the Canadian Cancer ociety has gone on record as recommending this increased supplemental dose of Vitamin D of 1,000 IU because of the growing body of evidence regarding the link between Vitamin D and reducing the risk for colorectal, breast and prostate cancer. Snowbirds who usually get more sun exposure year round may need less, but taking this dose year round is probably the best advice, especially since cautions about excessive sun exposure and skin cancers is still an issue.


We always need reminders about good eating habits. Choose the contents of your grocery basket wisely. Buy the healthy foods and leave the junk food, fatty and salty foods, sweets and pastries on the shelves. Learn to read the labels on foods carefully and develop some expertise in shopping wisely. In addition, take any supplemental vitamins and minerals as recommended by your physician. As well as a healthy diet, remember that your next most important effort in maintaining a healthy lifestyle is year-round daily physical activity, such as 30 minutes of brisk but comfortable walking. Most snowbirds have the opportunity to eat well and keep fit all year.