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Nutrition Self-Help Advice for Your Parents

Written by Jennifer Strailey

Experts give advice on how you can help your parents stay healthy. There are many challenges to providing care to an aging parent. Making sure they eat a healthy diet doesn't have to be one of them.

As a kid, you were a finicky eater. At least that's what your parents told you no less than a thousand times over the years. Apparently, it's payback time.

For adult children now taking care of their parents, making sure that Mom and Dad eat a healthy diet can be as challenging as trying to get a kid to eat a bowl full of Brussels sprouts.

 
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Increasingly, retailers are hiring on-staff dieticians who answer consumer questions with regard to special dietary needs.
Some retailers have brought this concept to the Web. Check out the following sites with sections dedicated to special diets and nutrition:
Wegmans' special diet directory.
Whole Foods Health and Wellness
 
 
Many older people favor a limited diet and as a result fail to get enough of the important vitamins, minerals and even the calories they need for good health. While their caloric needs are slightly less than ours, their vitamin and mineral requirements remain the same.

If your parent suffers from a serious health problem, such as diabetes, osteoporosis, etc., seek the help of a physician in developing a diet that meets your parent's specific needs.

If your concern is to provide a healthful diet, in general, to an elderly loved one, there are several factors to consider, says Ronni Chernoff, editor of the book Geriatric Nutrition: The Health Professional's Handbook, and the associate director for education and evaluation at the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

She finds that the diets of older Americans most often lack five important things:

1. Adequate Calorie Intake
Although the American Dietetic Association says the need for calories decreases by 25 percent as we age, many older people cut their calories too dramatically. Confusion about the low-fat message is part of the problem, says Chernoff. Some elderly hear, "Watch your saturated fat intake," and eliminate all foods with fat in them, such as cheese and yogurt, which can be beneficial to their health.

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2. Foods With Fiber
Fiber is essential to a healthy diet, helping to lower cholesterol, manage glucose levels and promote regularity. Fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, beans and legumes are all terrific sources of fiber. But as Chernoff observes, "People seem to think the only source of fiber is bran muffins, and that's just not the case." She finds that many people don't get the Dietetic Association's recommended 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day.

3. Variety in the Diet
A varied diet offers the best chance at getting enough essential vitamins and minerals. "I strongly encourage including a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products in the diet," says Chernoff, who adds that our need for protein also increases as we age. For daily serving recommendations, check out the Dietetic Association's food guide pyramid for older Americans.

4. Fluid Intake
Older people are less sensitive to thirst than younger people. This, coupled with the fact that "a lot of older people purposefully self-dehydrate because of minor problems of incontinence," can cause fluid deficiencies in the elderly, says Chernoff.

They should consume six to eight 8-ounce cups of water or liquid a day. "It doesn't have to be water," she notes. Soups, gelatin desserts, fruit juices and decaffeinated tea will also help to keep you properly hydrated.

While it can be an embarrassing subject to broach, if incontinence is causing your parent dehydration, let him or her know it's manageable. "You can control [minor incontinence] by going to the bathroom at regular intervals, whether you feel like you need to or not," says Chernoff. A trip to the restroom every two to three hours should suffice.

5. Calcium and Vitamin D
Low-fat dairy products like skim milk, skim milk cheeses and yogurts can be important sources of calcium in the diet, advises Chernoff, who adds that osteoporosis is a nearly preventable condition if a proper diet is followed early on. While your mother can't make up for a calcium-deficient diet in her youth by taking massive amounts of calcium supplements now, it remains an important part of her diet.

It's not only calcium that women need, but a combination of calcium with vitamin D, which helps the body to absorb calcium. "In order to adequately absorb dietary calcium, you need an acidic medium," explains Chernoff. This makes calcium-fortified orange juice one of the best sources of calcium for lactose intolerant.

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