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Eating Well & Staying Healthy

Never before has such interest and emphasis been placed on the importance of a healthy diet. With the growing problem of obesity, health experts are flagging the dangers associated with being overweight and having a poor diet. Research has shown excess weight is a serious health problem, increasing the risk of developing a number of serious illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure. Being undernourished brings its own problems too and is linked with heart problems, lowered resistance to infection, chronic fatigue, anaemia, depression and other illnesses.

The basic principles of a healthy diet that all the experts agree on are that we all should:

  • Eat a variety of different foods using the Food Pyramid as a guide.
  • Eat less saturated fat, e.g. less butter, buy lean cuts of meat, oven bake, grill, poach, stir-fry or dry-fry food with a low fat spray instead of frying.
  • Make lower fat choices whenever possible.
  • Eat more fish - have oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, trout, herring or salmon at least twice a week.
  • Eat four or more portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
  • Eat more foods rich in fibre, e.g. bread and cereals, especially wholegrain.
  • Reduce salt intake by limiting the amount of salt you add at the table and during cooking and keep convenient ready meals to a minimum. Cut down on high salt food - salty meats, tinned or packet soups and sauces, and salted savoury snacks.
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day.

Generally speaking, if we base our diet on the principles of the Food Pyramid, we choose more foods from the lower part of the pyramid and fewer from the top. That is, more breads, cereals, rice and pasta, and less fats, oils and sweets. The pyramid helps ensure we have a balanced intake of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals to provide us with all the ingredients for a healthy body. All packaged foods now have to display the nutritional value of the contents so it is important you look for the following:

  • Protein for the growth and repair of cells, tissue and organs.
  • Carbohydrates for the body's main source of energy.
  • Fibre for the prevention of constipation.
  • Fat for energy (unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats).
  • Vitamin A for healthy eyes, skin, hair.
  • Vitamin B12 to protect the nervous system and prevent anaemia.
  • Vitamin C for healthy gums, skin, healing of wounds, bones and resisting infection. It is also necessary for the absorption of iron from our daily diet.
  • Vitamin D for the absorption of calcium from food.
  • Vitamin E to act as an antioxidant and protect cell walls.
  • Thiamin (B1) needed to release energy.
  • Riboflavin (B2) helps release energy and maintains health.
  • Niacin essential for energy release.
  • Calcium for healthy teeth and bones and to prevent osteoporosis in later life.
  • Zinc to aid the healing process of pressure sores in conjunction with Vitamin C.
  • Magnesium for muscle function and energy and protein metabolism.
  • Iron for building red blood cells to carry oxygen to all parts of the body.

Older People

Energy requirements generally decrease as we get older and many have to modify their diets to help control illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, but if an older person is in good health the principles of a healthy diet still apply. Staying active is very important and helps to maintain a healthy appetite, mobility and prevent excess weight gain. Certain factors are more relevant to older people and being mindful of these can help older people to stay in good health for longer.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption and good bone health. The most important source of Vitamin D is the exposure of sunlight to the skin. People in residential care or who are housebound can be at risk of deficiency. Foods rich in Vitamin D are oily fish, fortified margarine and butter and Vitamin D enriched foods, e.g. milk, yogurts.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C deficiency can also be a problem for older people if their intake of fruit and vegetables is reduced for any of a number of reasons, e.g. mobility difficulties, poverty, dental problems, in residential care. Vitamin C is needed to heal wounds and keep skin, gums, bones and teeth healthy. It also gives resistance to infection.

Fibre

Constipation is the most common disorder of the gastrointestinal tract in older people. A high-fibre diet including vegetables, fruits and wholegrains with plenty of liquids (and ideally some exercise) can prevent constipation. Because fibre is indigestible, it can also help people who are overweight as it provides a sensation of fullness without the calories.

Poor Dental Health

Older adults with poor dental health or no teeth are at higher risk of having a poor diet as they are less likely to select foods which are difficult to chew such as meat, fruit and vegetables. This can result in them being deficient in certain essential vitamins and minerals. If the consumption of these foods is difficult, supplements can be taken on dietetic or medical advice.

This information has been reproduced from the website www.assistireland.ie with permission from the Citizens Information Board. Assist Ireland is an online resource providing information on assistive technology and a directory of products available from Irish suppliers for older people and people with disabilities.