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Bearing this in mind, we sat down with Mary Schellhammer, a registered dietitian at Judson for the past 13 years. Mary’s role is different every single day, she says, but her main responsibility lies with advising individual residents on their nutritional needs. She’ll even accompany residents to the grocery store to help them conduct more health-minded shopping.
So in the spirit of March being National Nutrition Month, we asked Mary to recommend her top 10 heathy eating habits for older adults. And in true Judson fashion, she did not disappoint:
“Oftentimes we find with age that sense of thirst decreases, and people don’t realize they’re not drinking enough fluids,” says Mary. “Lack of fluids can lead to dehydration and various complications. We always recommend drinking water or the occasional low-calorie beverage to stay hydrated.”
At the Judson communities, both residents and employees will find “hydration stations” placed throughout the community, fully stocked with free water and fruited beverages.
Meals are most enjoyable when you dine with others. Rather than eating alone in their home, residents are encouraged to join one another for meals in the dining room. Judson even provides a community table at all three of their communities where residents can come and join others who haven’t made plans and would like someone to dine with.
Healthy eating and nutrition is one of the most important tools to help us age well. A varied menu of healthy foods consumed on a daily basis is critical for older adults to meet dietary guidelines.
“It’s important to eat well-balanced meals with healthy foods like whole grains, fresh fruits, seafood, poultry, and a variety of different-colored vegetables,” says Mary. “We even provide fresh fruit in the cafe and dining room at all times throughout the day.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found that more than two-thirds of adults in the United States are considered to be overweight or obese, with more than one-third of adults falling into the obese designation. The reasons for this are varied, but a primary cause is the modern American portion size.
“Most people don’t realize what a portion size is,” says Mary. “The average restaurant serves 2-3 times the amount of a proper portion. We encourage residents, when they dine out, to not be afraid to take home part of the meal for the next day. It’s not necessary to over-indulge, as this can lead to obesity and health problems.”
Schellhammer provides some visual cues to help us control our portion sizes:
As we age, our digestive system generally slows down, and it becomes critically important to regularly eat fibrous foods to help eliminate any complications resulting from inhibited digestion.
This is why it’s important to include a variety of different-colored vegetables, as Mary discussed earlier. Varied vegetables will add lots of fiber and nutrients to your diet. Don’t eat the same types of vegetables every day, because each vegetable offers different vitamins and nutrients your body needs to survive and thrive.
“As we age we find that many residents’ teeth and gums change and they tend to develop dental problems,” says Mary, “so it can be difficult to consume harder fruits, raw vegetables, and meat. It’s important to incorporate softer alternatives, like cooked vegetables, tuna fish, unsweetened canned fruits, and low-sodium soups and broth.”
Some older adults find that, as they age, their sense of flavor diminishes, and their favorite dish might not taste as delectable as it normally would. Medications can also have an adverse effect on taste, as well as smell, which is strongly associated with how our food tastes.
“Instead of just using salt,” says Mary, “we use different herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of our meals and bring back to life some of our residents’ favorite dishes.”
Resident education is a critical component of Mary’s work at Judson, and she frequently fields phone calls and questions from residents on food safety issues.
She’ll sometimes get calls from residents asking about food left out overnight, or meat left in the fridge for an extended period of time, and whether or not it’s safe to eat. She will always advise them that in terms of food safety, “better safe than sorry” is an important aphorism to abide by.
“Don’t take a chance,” she says. “Err on the side of safety when it comes to your food.” She also cautions against consuming unpasteurized dairy foods or raw or undercooked foodstuffs.
As mentioned earlier, Mary will sometimes accompany residents to their preferred market to show them how to look for best food items by inspecting the nutritional labels.
“Always look at fat, sodium and overall calories,” she says. “But this advice can be very specific and varied depending on health conditions.” Mary advises all residents to also get guidance from their personal physician.
Food is the best way to get all the nutrients we need, but sometimes we’re not able to get all nutrients, vitamins and minerals from diet alone. Oftentimes vitamins and supplements are necessary, but this will always depend on what your doctor recommends. Be sure to consult your personal physician to make the best choice possible for your individual health.
At Judson our residents have the resource of a registered dietitian to help them make healthy choices as they age. But just remember: Making healthy food choices is important no matter what age you are.