When it comes to seniors, the well-known food pyramid may need some fortifying.
That's the conclusion of Robert Russell, MD, associate director of the Tufts University USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston. Russell and his colleagues have revised the pyramid to reflect the changing nutritional needs of people over the age of 70, specifically with regard to their intake of essential nutrients and fiber. At the foundation of the revised pyramid is plain old water.
"Older people just don't feel as thirsty as younger people. They have to make a conscious effort to drink more to stay well-hydrated," says Russell. Dehydration is a serious matter for seniors; it can lead to blood pressure problems, blood clots, chronic constipation and may compromise kidney function. Seniors need to down eight 8-ounce glasses of H2O every day. Coffee, tea and alcohol don't count.
In general, seniors can follow the remainder of the pyramid, but often don't. Russell says poor choices show up on the dinner table-white bread instead of whole grain, juice over the whole fruit, and sweets and processed foods over just about anything.
Seniors, especially, should shun empty calories because as the body ages, we expend less energy and absorb certain vitamins differently. Russell recommends high-nutrient foods instead of their high-energy counterparts.
This means following the pyramid's suggestions, but being diligent in choosing colorful fruits and vegetables, ones that are dark green, orange or yellow, because they are richer in nutrients. Those in the cabbage family are loaded with cancer-fighting chemicals. At the dairy level, low-fat choices are superior to whole milk and cheese.
Russell tops his revised pyramid with a flag at the peak: the addition of supplements, particularly calcium and vitamins B-12 and D. It is often difficult for seniors to get enough of these vital nutrients from food alone.
The food guide pyramid itself is coming under close scrutiny. Though adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1992, it is under attack by those promoting the Mediterranean diet and others who advocate more vegetables and fewer grains. The USDA is reviewing current research.