GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Remember that high school health class? Now imagine a similar class geared toward students 65 and older.
That’s the idea behind nutrition education for older adults provided by the Family Nutrition Program, an Extension program of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which teaches people how to stay healthy and active on a budget.
“As we get older, our bodies change, and we are at greater risk for developing chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Dr. Sharon Austin, adult programs specialist for the Family Nutrition Program. “My job is to encourage older adults to make small changes that will help them lead active, independent lives.”
The need for this kind of education is growing, Austin said. Adults over 65 are the fastest growing age group in the United States, and Florida has the highest percentage of adults 65 and older of any state, she said.
Everyone ages differently, and individual needs can be determined with your doctor, Austin said. But in general, as we get older, we may need to pay more attention to certain aspects of our eating and exercise routines to stay healthy, she said.
- Calorie needs
As we age, our bodies typically need fewer calories because we are moving less and have less muscle mass, Austin said. “When you don’t need as many calories, you want to make sure you get more bang for your buck. That means avoiding ‘empty calories’ and choosing foods that are going to give you the nutrients you need,” she said.
- Eating from every food group
One way to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients you need is to eat a variety of foods from every food group, Austin said. Take a look at ChooseMyPlate.gov to see how much of each food group to consume.
- Fiber-rich foods
“Fiber isn’t just good for digestive health. It also helps lower risk for heart disease and diabetes, which are common chronic diseases in older adults,” Austin said.
You can get your daily recommended intake of fiber from whole grains, beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables, she said.
- Fortified foods
Look for foods fortified with vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium. “Vitamin B12 helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, and calcium and Vitamin D help support bone health,” Austin said.
- Drinking water
Older adults may have a decreased sense of thirst, and may more easily become dehydrated, Austin said. “One way to avoid dehydration is to sip water throughout the day from a cup or container you keep nearby during your daily routines,” she said
- Exercises for mobility, balance and weight management
“When we talk about exercise for older adults, the goal is to set yourself up for physical independence. In our classes, we talk about everyday activities, such as cleaning the house or gardening, which can keep us strong and flexible, and burn calories. We also practice ways to increase balance, which can help us avoid falls and injury,” Austin said.
An exercise that many participants enjoy is the ‘couch potato mambo,’ Austin said. “Next time you’re sitting watching TV, get up and dance during the commercial break. It’s a small step toward health, and it’s fun.”
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