The CDC Tells Seniors: Eat Your Fruits and Veggies!

March is National Nutrition Month — a great time to highlight plant foods that have dietary star quality.

Senior couple preparing a vegetarian meal

Americans are living longer. But how can we stay healthy in our later years? This is a question asked by the growing population of older adults who are concerned about their quality of life … by their families, who wonder about the caregiving load they'll face … and by the nation's senior services agencies, which are expected to spend more and more to keep seniors safe and healthy.

One line of scientific investigation seeks to pinpoint the optimal nutritional needs of seniors, as well as the best ways to meet those needs. Researchers from Tufts University, where some of the major research on seniors and nutrition takes place, point out that by the year 2050, there will be three times as many people in the U.S. older than 65 — so a greater emphasis on senior nutrition in our healthcare system can't happen soon enough!

So what are we learning? Recent studies have focused in particular on the healthy aging powerhouse of fruits and vegetables. One 2017 study, published by the American Academy of Neurology, found that seniors who ate at least one serving per day of leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale or salad lettuce, experienced a much slower decline in their memory and thinking skills during the course of five years. Indeed, said head researcher Martha Clare Morris, Sc.D., of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, "Older adults who ate at least one serving of leafy green vegetables show an equivalent of being 11 years younger cognitively."

Pretty impressive benefits from a plate of spinach or kale!

And we might need more fruits and veggies than we did when we were young. In December 2017, researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York, looked at the relationship between diet and mental health, and noted that people aged 18 – 29 who ate meat most days of the week had a greater sense of well-being, while older adults benefited more from a higher proportion of fruits and vegetables that contain important antioxidants.

However, the diet of most older adults today includes far below the recommended amount of fruits and veggies. A November 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that while seniors are advised to consume between 1½ to two cups of fruit and two to three cups of vegetables per day, most diets fail to measure up. The report found that only 12 percent of older adults are getting enough fruit, and only 10 percent are eating enough veggies!

Are you doing the menu math in your head? Maybe you're not sure what "two or three cups of veggies" actually looks like. It's not complicated. To consume a cup of veggies, you might select either three broccoli spears, two carrots, a cup of cooked spinach, a cup of tomato juice or a large ear of corn. A cup of fruit might consist of a small apple, a large banana, 32 seedless grapes, eight large strawberries, or a cup of 100 percent pure fruit juice. As you're developing your portion sense, check out tables for both fruits and veggies on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website.

If your diet doesn't measure up in the fruits and veggies department, what's your excuse? Here are some reasons many seniors give:

Excuse #1: It's too much trouble to prepare veggies and fruits. If you think that, you need some new recipes! Maybe you grew up in a time when meal preparation was an elaborate affair, and the veggie course took a lot of ingredients and chopping and cooking. But adding produce to your diet might require no more effort than to wash a handful of grapes, or arrange some mixed greens or spinach on a plate with some mushrooms and orange slices. You can buy bagged salads and prechopped veggies and fruits (though those are usually pricier). Dip baby carrots in hummus for a delicious lunch. If you prepare a special veggie dish for dinner one night, make enough for the next day, too.

Excuse #2: Fresh produce is expensive and I have to buy so much that it sometimes goes to waste. Smart shopping can reduce the cost of fresh produce. Buy fruits and veggies that are in season. Keep an open mind — don't head to the produce section with your shopping list engraved in stone, because you never know what will be on sale! To extend the life of produce, store fruits and vegetables properly (here's a good cheat sheet from the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). And nutritionists tell us that frozen veggies and fruits can be almost as nutritious as fresh. You needn't finish the whole package — just take out what you need and pop the remainder back in the freezer. One more tip: Don't buy veggies that are packed in a butter sauce, or fruits in sugary syrup. Canned veggies and fruits, too, are nutritious, but avoid those with added salt and sugar.

Excuse #3: Fresh fruits and veggies are hard to chew and swallow. Missing teeth, dentures and gum problems make it harder to chew crunchy foods. A swallowing disorder could even put a senior in danger of choking on some types of produce. Proper preparation is important. Cook vegetables until they are comfortably soft, cut fresh veggies into smaller pieces, add a light sauce or dressing to soften and moisten them, or make a smoothie. Fruit juices are less nutrient-rich than whole fruit, but they're certainly better than no fruit at all. (Choose 100 percent fruit juice, not a "fruit drink," which may be mostly sugar water.) If you have sensitive teeth, choose fruits with lower acidity and sweetness.

Excuse #4: I just don't like the taste of most veggies. Again, this may be a matter of how we ate as we were growing up. Maybe Mom stuck to carrots, peas and potatoes, so we didn't develop a taste for fresh greens or broccoli. People raised in the canned spinach era may think they don't like spinach at all — until they taste, for example, a delicious baby spinach and strawberry salad! It's never too late to extend your produce horizons. Ask the grandkids what veggies and fruits they like. You might find that swiss chard and star fruit become new favorites.

In-home caregiver shopping with senior client

Excuse #5: I'm a carnivore! Eating more veggies doesn't mean becoming a vegetarian (though you might give it a try, or consume alternate proteins several days of the week). Instead, use meat less as the main portion of your meal and more of a guest star. Make a salad with leafy greens, fresh veggies and chicken. Load soups and stews with a delicious variety of vegetables. Don't forget that beans have plenty of protein — as well as fiber that helps keep our digestive system in good shape.

Excuse #6: I can't get to the store often enough. Seniors with limited transportation may rely on packaged food to see them through several weeks. To get to the store more often, check out senior transportation programs, or share a cab ride with friends. Find out if grocery stores nearby will deliver. See if your local senior center offers trips to farmers markets. Check out a community-supported agriculture group (CSA) that will deliver produce right from the farm. And if your family uses in-home care to support the well-being of older loved ones, the caregiver can take your loved one to the grocery store to select fruits and veggies and prepare meals that are healthy and appetizing.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.