New Tool for Senior Nutrition

For years, nutritionists used the familiar "food pyramid" to demonstrate the recommended intake of the various food groups. Then in 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture replaced the pyramid with the MyPlate icon, a simpler visual display to remind Americans about the need for healthy eating.

Yet although the nutritional requirements of older adults are similar to those of younger people, the simplicity of MyPlate does not fully address the modifications older adults might need to make to adapt their diets to changing needs. To help them, nutrition scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University modified the plate to create the MyPlate for Older Adults graphic.

This is not the first time Tufts senior scientist Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., and her team have retrofitted a popular nutritional model to reflect the needs of senior diners. In 2008, they released a senior-specific version of the old food pyramid ("Food Pyramid for Older Adults Updated" in the March 2008 issue of Caring Right at Home featured the old model).

The new MyPlate for Older Adults emphasizes several components of a healthy senior diet:

  • Bright-colored vegetables such as carrots and broccoli.
  • Deep-colored fruit such as berries and peaches.
  • Whole, enriched and fortified grains and cereals such as brown rice and 100 percent whole wheat bread.
  • Low- and non-fat dairy products such as yogurt and low-lactose milk.
  • Dry beans and nuts, fish, poultry, lean meats and eggs.
  • Liquid vegetable oils and soft spreads low in saturated and trans fat.
  • Spices to replace salt.
  • Fluids such as water and fat-free milk.
  • Physical activity such as walking, resistance training and common daily activities.

How Was MyPlate for Older Adults Adapted for Senior Nutritional Needs?

Calories to nutrients ratio. As we grow older, we require fewer calories to power our bodies, yet our need for nutrients does not decrease. The new MyPlate emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods that offer a favorable ratio of nutrients to calories.

Alternatives to fresh produce. Many seniors find it challenging to obtain and prepare fresh produce. Reassuring senior diners, Lichtenstein reports, "We also include icons representing frozen, pre-peeled fresh, dried and certain low-sodium, low-sugar canned options because fruits and vegetables in those forms contain as many or more nutrients as fresh and they are easier to prepare, are more affordable, and have a longer shelf life."

An emphasis on fluids. Through the years, our sense of thirst declines and we may be at risk of dehydration. The MyPlate graphic features water, coffee, tea, soup and milk as a reminder to include fluids with meals as recommended.

Alternatives to sodium. All people should watch their salt intake. The USDA dietary guidelines emphasize limiting sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams or less. Limiting salt becomes even more important as we grow older. MyPlate for Older Adults suggests alternatives to salt, such as spices, and reminds seniors to select low-sodium options of items such as canned vegetables.

A reminder to slow down. Note the prominent placement of the knife and fork in the design of the new plate. Says Lichtenstein, "The focus should be on the enjoyment of food, on the amount consumed and, whenever possible, the opportunity for social interaction at mealtimes." The team recommends: "Put down remote controls and smart phones and occupy both hands with eating utensils."

Physical activity. Why is exercise included in a nutritional recommendation? The Tufts team realized that it is difficult to determine the nutritional needs of an older adult without taking individual activity levels into account. Says Lichtenstein, "Government statistics continue to show that elderly obesity rates are on the rise, indicating there is a need to educate older adults about the importance of moving regularly and consuming a diet of nutrient-rich foods with a calorie content matched to energy needs."

The researchers remind older adults to discuss their diet and physical activity routine with their healthcare provider before making any major changes.

Image: Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University.

Learn More

September is Fruits & Veggies — More Matters Month. Visit the Fruits & Veggies More Matters website for tempting recipes and inspiration for adding more delicious produce to your diet.

Eating well is challenging for seniors who are living with physical and cognitive health problems. Read "Creating Appetizing Meals for Seniors" in the March 2013 issue of Caring Right at Home to learn how in-home caregivers support the nutritional needs of senior clients

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