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Successful Snacking: The Do’s & Don’ts of Senior Nutrition

Have you noticed any changes in your eating habits as you’ve grown older? Or, are foods that never bothered you before keeping you up at night? For a lot of seniors, the answer is yes. As we age, the way our bodies break down food changes. Here are some tips on what seniors should and should not be eating, based on aging’s impact on digestion: 

The Do’s

1) Dairy
Getting enough calcium and Vitamin D is crucial to aging’s effects on bone health.   According to the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine of The National Academies, people under the age of 50 need 200 International Units (IUs) of Vitamin D a day. That number jumps to 400 IU after age 50, and then up to 600 IU after age 70. Getting that much Vitamin D naturally is no easy feat, so it should come as little surprise that a lot of seniors are Vitamin D deficient.  
Dairy and fish rich in omega-3s (like salmon and mackerel) are great sources of Vitamin D, but if they’re not enough, be sure to take a supplement. 

2) B vitamins (especially 12!)
As we age, our bodies produce less fluids to break down and process foods. The changes in microbial balance can make I harder for our bodies to absorb important nutrients, like B6 and B12. Make sure to get a lot of foods rich in B12, like eggs, lean meats, and shellfish. 

3) LOTS of Fiber
Eating plenty of fiber can lower the risk of stroke, cancer, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, but, when it comes to how much fiber we should be consuming in a day, most Americans fall short. It’s estimated that the average adult only eats 15 grams of fiber a day, despite women needing a minimum of 25 grams and men needing 38 grams.   
Crank up your fiber intake by getting plenty of leafy greens, fresh fruits, and whole grains. Beans are also loaded with fiber (one cup of kidney beans packs 13 grams of the stuff!) so weave them into your diet whenever possible.  

The Don’ts
1) Bean Sprouts
Bean sprouts are a rich source of amino acids, potassium, calcium, …. and bacteria. Sprouts, although a great source of nutrients, require warm, humid conditions to grow, and can quickly turn into a bacterial breeding ground.  

Since 1996, there have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness, including Salmonella and E.coli, that have been directly linked back to raw or lightly cooked sprouts.  Sprouts’ aptitude for harboring bacteria makes them a bad choice for anyone with a weakened immune system, including seniors.  Tread with caution when it comes to sprouts and, if you plan on eating them, make sure to cook them thoroughly to avoid the risk of contamination. 

2) Soft cheeses
This one is a real bummer. (Who doesn’t love a good Brie?!) Soft cheeses, like Feta, Brie, and Camembert, are have higher levels of bacteria than hard cheeses.  The average adult’s digestive system is sufficiently armed to ward off any illness soft cheeses carry, but, as we age, our bodies experience a decrease in stomach acid secretion, which impacts our intestinal tract’s bacterial balance.  The result? Seniors are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses than their younger counterparts. 

To play it safe, make sure any soft cheeses you eat have “made with pasteurized milk” clearly displayed on the label. 

3) Grapefruit
It’s a commonly known fact that grapefruit can have a negative impact with mixed with some medications, but we’re still learning more about the breadth and implications of the fruit’s impact on medication management.  Currently, grapefruit is known negatively interact with 85 medications, including drugs for blood pressure, thyroid, and cancer treatment. Of those 85, over half can have fatal consequences when mixed with grapefruit. 

What makes grapefruit so risky? Our bodies contain Cytochrome P450 enzymes, which help break down medications and filter them out of our system.  Grapefruit contains furanocoumarins, organic chemical compounds that block P450 enzymes from doing their job (yikes!)  As a result, medications can build up to toxic, and potentially fatal levels. 

Based on the potential implications, if you’re taking a drug on this list, it’s best to avoid grapefruit altogether. 

Keeping track of what we eat, albeit challenging, is crucial to healthy aging.  For more information on healthy aging and nutrition, visit the National Council of Aging’s website,