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Food - Food pyramid designed for needs of aging population

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Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2003 9:46 am | Updated: 2:00 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

They changed the worlds of music, fashion, politics and pop culture.

And now, love ’em or hate ’em, the 76 million Americans known

as baby boomers are apparently exerting their influence on the world of

nutrition for seniors.

It’s not that health professionals have ignored the nutritional

needs of older adults until now. It’s just that, until the aging boomers came along, seniors may have lacked the numbers to warrant

something as revolutionary as their very own food pyramid.

But they’ve got it now, courtesy of Tufts University’s Human Nutrition

Research Center.

Aimed at people 50 years or older — especially those 70

and older — the modified pyramid takes the unique nutritional

needs of seniors into account while aiming to keep them eating as

healthfully as possible. The pyramid has a narrower base than the

original, reflecting a recommended decrease in calories while emphasizing nutrient-dense foods, fiber and water.

“We know that older people need fewer calories because they tend to be

less active and their body composition changes,” says Tufts faculty member Alice H. Lichtenstein, who helped develop the new pyramid.

“Yet nutrient needs stay the same or even increase, so they need to select foods that provide the most nutrients per serving.”

For instance, the original pyramid calls for six to 11 servings of any type of grains. The older adult guide recommends just six servings, and specifies high-fiber or whole grains.

More than just suggesting servings, though, the guide also stresses the

importance of selecting the right types of foods. Bananas and apples are good choices, but peaches and apricots are even better because of the amount of vitamin A in them. Romaine lettuce is better than iceberg lettuce because it’s richer in nutrients. You won’t see white potatoes on the guide because they’re less nutritious than, for instance, sweet potatoes.

As for the specifics:

THE BASE

The foundation of the modified pyramid calls for eight daily 8-ounce glasses of fluid, including soups, juices and water.

“Because older people often don’t feel as thirsty as younger persons, they are at increased risk of becoming dehydrated,” says Lichtenstein. Adequate fluids also help prevent constipation, another issue for older adults.

LEVEL TWO

This level calls for six daily servings of high-fiber andwhole-grain foods, such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and bran cereals.

Skip the white bread and white rice.

LEVEL THREE

Seniors should eat three or more servings daily of vegetables and two or more of fruit. Both are good sources of fiber, but again, the pyramid creators say some choices are better than others. The darker and brighter the colors, the better.

“We suggest eating dark leafy greens like spinach, orange and yellow

vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash, and colorful fruit like

strawberries and mangos that are more rich in vitamins A and C and in

folic acid,” says Dr. Robert M. Russell, associate director of the Jean

Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts.

LEVEL FOUR

The penultimate level of the pyramid shares two categories:

dairy and proteins, with a recommendation of three or more daily

servings of nonfat or low-fat dairy foods and two or more daily servings of protein-rich foods such as fish, poultry, lean meats, dry beans, eggs and nuts.

If dairy is a problem, drink juices fortified with calcium and vitamin D. If cholesterol is a problem, egg substitutes will suffice.

One word of caution: Go easy on the “or more” part of the serving

recommendations. Nutritionists suggest moderation, especially in the

protein category.

THE TOP

Like the traditional pyramid, the top of the pyramid represents fats, oils and sugar, which should be used sparingly.

“It’s important for older people to limit their intake of desserts and

snacks like cookies and cake that contribute a lot of calories but have

few nutrients,” says Lichtenstein. “A better dessert choice would be

nonfat yogurt or a piece of fresh fruit.”

THE RED FLAG

The red flag at the pinnacle of the modified pyramid is not

a decoration, but a reminder that seniors might not absorb all of their vitamins because of age-related changes in metabolism.

Some seniors might need extra calcium and vitamin D to prevent

bone-thinning. Supplemental B12 can help maintain nerve function and may reduce occurrence of dementia.

Nonfat dairy foods are the best sources for calcium and vitamin

D. Many older adults cannot efficiently use the vitamin B12 found in

animal foods, but can more easily absorb it if it’s in vitamin B12-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals or supplements. Supplemental tablets might be needed if illness, a lack of appetite or other problems limit food choices.

“The red flag is just a reminder,” stresses Lichtenstein. “Always check

with your health care provider and keep in mind where you live. If you are living in Southern California or in Florida, you probably get more than enough vitamin D from the sun. If you’re living in a northern climate and not drinking fluid milk, you may need to get calcium from a supplement.”

Bottom line: We are what we eat. When we’re 72, we might not all have the body of Jack La Lanne> or the skin of Elizabeth Taylor. But if

we start eating better and get some exercise, we might have a longer,

healthier life.

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