Many myths exist about what comprises a healthy diet. In the 70s, there was the Sleeping Beauty Diet, which recommended sleeping to keep from overeating. The drawback was that people had to take sedatives to sleep long enough.
There is the Master Cleanse Diet, where participants live for days on nothing but lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper mixed in water. Side effects include fatigue, nausea, dizziness, dehydration, and muscle loss.
What are some nutrition myths still out there – specifically aimed at seniors?
Myth #1 – Senior malnutrition doesn’t exist in the U.S.
Research shows that older adults are at particularly high risk for malnutrition. Even seniors with access to nutritious food have chronic conditions (cancer, diabetes, dementia) that can impact appetite. Other seniors may not have the finances to purchase the nutritious foods they need. Buying cheaper, high-caloric foods creates the strange situation of being overweight and malnourished at the same time.
According to the 2019 Annual Report of Feed America, the State of Senior Hunger in America, 5.5 million seniors in the U.S. were food insecure.
Myth #2 – Seniors can skip meals if they don’t feel like eating
Skipping a meal can create cravings, which often will result in the intake of too much food later on. For some seniors, however, skipping a meal can lead to a further decrease in appetite. People with diabetes may have difficulty controlling their blood glucose levels if they do not eat the correct foods frequently enough.
Myth #3 – Seniors can eat whatever they want
Nutrition is important at any age. Though seniors require fewer calories than younger people, they still require the nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein.
Senior adults also retain a taste for sweets, particularly people with Alzheimer’s disease. Aside from the obvious negative impact on people with diabetes, there are other risks.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people who eat lots of carbohydrates “have nearly four times the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, and the danger also rises with a diet heavy in sugar.”
Myth #4 – Seniors can get the nutrition they need in vitamins and supplements
According to documentation from Harvard Medical School, “supplements can plug dietary gaps, but nutrients from food are most important.”
As people age, their ability to absorb nutrients from food decreases, their energy needs decrease, and they tend to eat less. According to Harvard, “dietary supplements would seem to be the obvious way to plug gaps in your diet. But taking too much can actually harm you.” The danger is getting too much of a particular nutrient without realizing it.
In addition, seniors with chronic health conditions, as well as those taking medications, should always consult with their physician before taking supplements or making drastic changes to their diet to avoid negative interactions and other complications.
Myth #5 – Eating out all the time is fine for seniors
How could you go wrong with this approach? You don’t have to grocery shop, cook and prepare the food, or clean up afterward, and there is a variety of restaurants from which to choose. What a win for senior adults!
Except . . .
…restaurant and take-out meals are notoriously loaded with fat, sugar and sodium. And then there is this:
A report by researchers from the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found that 92 percent of restaurant meals exceeded recommended calorie requirements for a single meal, and many restaurant’s single-meal servings exceeded caloric requirements for an entire day.
Myth #6 – Seniors should focus on foods labeled as healthy, low-fat, or reduced-calorie
Food items marked as “healthy” aren’t always good for you. Example: turkey bacon sounds like a good choice, but it could be loaded with high amounts of sugar and sodium.
Another example: Some yogurts labeled as low-fat are as high in sugar as desserts.
Myth #7 – Seniors should avoid eating fats
For most people in the U.S., a reduction in fat consumption is sensible. But there are fats and then there are fats.
The worst kind of fats are known as trans fats. These fats have no known health benefits and there is no safe level of consumption. They may be found in baked goods, shortening, frozen pizza, fried foods, and stick margarine. The Mayo Clinic calls them “double trouble for your heart health.”
However, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are good for you. And the body needs fat as a source of energy. They also help in the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, flaxseeds, and walnuts. They have been linked to the prevention of heart disease and stroke.
Myth #8 – Senior living communities have awful food
If you’re thinking of a gray hamburger patty, and room-temperature applesauce with a side of flavorless green beans served in drab, impersonal dining room in a nursing home, you’re living in the past.
Today’s senior living communities compete for the appetites of their residents. Most feature menu variety and elegant dining facilities, and the food choices are planned by registered dietitians and include fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. Special requests can often be made for food items, as well as diets tailored to the unique health needs of seniors.
We all know how important nutrition is for our health. You can find more articles on improving nutritional habits for you and your loved one right here in our Health & Wellness section.