Concerned about the unique dietary needs of seniors, researchers at Tufts University have compiled a special Food Guide Pyramid for people over age 70.
Even the most healthful diet can't guarantee long life. But active and healthy seniors can increase their odds of staying that way by being aware of how aging changes their nutritional needs. With this in mind, three Tufts University researchers Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, RD, Robert Russell, MD and Helen Rasmussen, MS, RD have tweaked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid to come up with one that they believe more accurately represents the dietary needs of older consumers.
The Food Guide Pyramid was developed by the USDA in 1992 as a visual representation of what health officials consider to be the components of a healthful diet for everyone over age two. But seniors have some specific nutrient needs not addressed in the one-size-fits-all Food Guide Pyramid, say the Tufts researchers, prompting them to suggest some modifications.
The 70+ Pyramid
The base of this revised pyramid is narrowed, signifying the reduced energy intake common among seniors. Most people eat fewer calories as they get older. Since less food is being eaten, it is imperative that the foods that are eaten provide not just calories, but other essential nutrients too. With a typical energy (calorie) intake of 1,200 to 1,600 calories per day, elderly consumers have to make every calorie count in order to get enough of those essential nutrients. The 70+ pyramid, therefore, outlines the "nutrient dense" choices in each food category, emphasizing whole grain or enriched breads and cereals; a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables; low-fat dairy foods; and lean meats, fish, poultry, and legumes.
The major differences in the 70+ pyramid involve fiber, water and supplements.
Icons throughout the pyramid highlight the importance of fiber in a healthful diet. This advice is important to seniors but applicable to all adults. Most Americans eat less than the recommended daily intake, which is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Adequate dietary fiber works to keep bowel movements regular thereby preventing constipation, and a fiber-rich diet may help reduce the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. High-fiber foods include whole grain breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
While grain foods anchor the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, the 70+ pyramid is built on a base of water. Adequate hydration is a chronic problem for many seniors. Decreased thirst sensation is common with aging, and some medications affect the body's ability to regulate fluid balance. Dehydration also worsens the symptoms of constipation. To combat these problems, this alternative pyramid advises seniors to drink at least eight glasses of fluids a day. Keep in mind, though, that coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages don't count toward this total fluid intake because they all act as diuretics, causing you to lose water.
Another key difference in the 70+ pyramid is that it is topped with a flag icon representing the possible need for dietary supplements. Both calcium and vitamin D absorption decrease with age. This has adverse effects on bone health, and increases the risk of fractures. Therefore, a higher amount of these nutrients is needed The ability to absorb the amount of vitamin B12 needed for normal nerve function also decreases with age, making this another key nutrient in your diet. Sometimes a B12 shot is required due to impaired absorption. Depending on your dietary habits, you may not need dietary supplements, but this is an issue you should discuss with your doctor.
The Main Message
The Tufts researchers point out that these dietary recommendations are aimed at healthy, mobile seniors with the resources needed to prepare adequate meals. The 70+ pyramid is not designed to consider the special dietary needs of those with significant health problems, nor does it address the socioeconomic factors—such as decreased income and mobility—that can make it harder for many seniors to meet nutrient needs. But all seniors, regardless of circumstances, should still hear the pyramid's main message: people over 70 have specific nutrient needs, and how well you meet those needs can be influential in how well you face the challenges of getting older.
Note that the 70+ pyramid is now just a suggestion; it has not yet been adopted as an official USDA teaching tool. But the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services are in the process of revising the U.S. Dietary Guidelines on which the Food Guide Pyramid is based, and the Tufts researchers hope that their 70+ pyramid will generate discussion on how best to address the unique nutrient needs of seniors.
Foods to Choose
Aim to make half of your grain servings derived from whole grain sources. Examples include:
• Breads and cereals made with whole grain flour
• Whole wheat pasta
• Brown rice
Many cereals are fortified with extra nutrients; check to make sure that your cereal contains folic acid (also called "folate").
Fruits and Vegetables
• Bright colored vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, broccoli and greens
• Deep colored fruits such as bananas, peaches, berries, oranges, kiwis, and papayas
• Avoid juices
Fruits and vegetables can be cooked, chopped or grated to make them more palatable to someone with dental or digestion difficulties.
• Low-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese
• Lower-fat cheeses
Lactose-free milk and "active culture" yogurt may be tolerated by people who cannot eat regular dairy products.
• Lean meats, poultry and fish
• Legumes such as beans, peas, seeds, and nuts
Fats, Oils and Sweets
Choose heart-healthy vegetable oils, such as olive oil and canola oil, which contain unsaturated fats which may lower blood cholesterol. Avoid saturated fats, like butter and animal fat, and do not eat trans fat, which has a strong association with the development of cardiovascular disease.
American Dietetic Association